King John is thought to be the antithesis of King Richard, the Lionheart who preceded him. If Richard was tall, strong, brave and an accomplished military leader, John was short, weak, cowardly and completely unskilled in the art of war. After attempting to steal the English crown from his brother Richard, who had entrusted John to look after his Kingdom while he led the Third Crusade, John legally inherited the throne in 1199 when Richard was killed in battle. King John’s is remembered today for his sealing of the Magna Carta, a document sealed under pressure to avoid a full scale civil war. John lost all English territories in France, his treasure, his crown and his life aged just 49.
Key Facts about King John
- John was born on December 24th 1167 in Oxford, England.
- He became King of England on April 7th 1199, aged 32.
- John was married twice, first to Isabella of Gloucester whom he divorced in 1200 and second to Isabella of Angouleme with whom he had five children.
- He died at 49 of dysentery and is buried at Worcester Cathedral.
The Life of King John
The youngest of the nine children of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor, John was born into a dynasty already at war over titles and inheritance. Shortly after his birth he was sent, along with his sister Joan, to Fontevault Abbey. Neither of his parents had any involvement in his upbringing and it is thought that a future in the church was encouraged.
Yet, as soon as he was old enough, John joined in the scheming and treachery within the royal family whole-heartedly. John joined his brothers in a revolt against King Henry II when Henry was already dying and then later plotting against his brother Richard when he was overseas leading the Third Crusade. His childhood nickname, Lackland, a cruel joke referring to his lack of inheritance due to his late and unexpected birth (Eleanor was 45 when she gave birth to John, a very old pregnancy by the standards of the Middle Ages), followed him throughout his life.
John is thought to have been the favorite son of King Henry II and there is much evidence to this fact. John was originally betrothed to Alais, heiress to Humbert III of Savoy, when he was just five years old. At the same time, King Henry II transferred ownership of three prominent castles and estates into John’s name. In 1176 King Henry had the sisters of Isabelle of Gloucester disinherited so that he could betroth her to John, securing for him her vast fortune. Then in 1177 Henry dismissed the Lord of Ireland and replaced him with John, who was just ten years old. It is these acts that are thought to have instigated the animosity between King Henry and his other sons that led to years of uncertainty and revolt.
John’s rule of Ireland was unsuccessful to say the least. He failed to make allies among the Anglo-Norman settlers, offended the native Irish and failed to stabilize the country. Within six months, John was withdrawn from his position and sent home. Soon after, Henry II’s eldest son Geoffrey died and tensions within the family grew. Richard was afraid Henry would choose John as his successor and so, along with Philip II of France, launched a war against him. John’s support was supposed to be with his father Henry, but he treacherously changed sides late in the war when it became clear that his father’s health was waning and he was likely to lose the fight.
During Richard’s reign, John was married to Isabella of Gloucester and given valuable lands in various English counties in an attempt to buy his loyalty while Richard was away fighting the Third Crusade. It was agreed that John would leave England and remain a resident elsewhere for the next three years to deter him from launching any real threat to Richard’s crown. However, the political system Richard had set up to rule in his absence quickly fell apart, leaving John free to set up his own royal court. John fought with Richard’s chancellor, William Longchamp, a conflict that resulted in Longchamp being held in the Tower of London while John took control of the city and had its citizens recognize him as heir to the throne.
Desperate to find a powerful ally before his big brother returned from his crusade and found out what he had been up to John sought the friendship of King Philip II of France. Philip had recently returned from Richard’s crusade with ill-feeling towards the King. Despite John’s scheming and the civil war that broke out between followers of Richard and John in England, Richard forgave his younger brother on his return, remarking that John was but “a child who has had evil counselors”.
Although Arthur of Brittany, four year-old son of oldest son Geoffrey, was named heir to Richard’s throne, John was crowned King of England on April 7th 1199 at Westminster Abbey. John’s ten year marriage to Isabel of Gloucester was childless so once he became King he quickly had the marriage annulled. Less than a year later, John kidnapped Isabella of Angouleme from her fiancée Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, and married her in a ceremony on 24th August 1200. Isabella was between nine and twelve years old at the time she became Queen of England, young even for medieval standards, but the King was thought to be besotted by her. Between the years 1207 and 1215, Isabella bore John five healthy children who all lived into adulthood and took up powerful positions in the English nobility. John also acknowledged up to 12 illegitimate children, many of whom were the result of him seducing the wives and children of his barons. Incredibly, following John’s death, Isabella returned to Angouleme to marry her original fiancée, Hugh IX le Brun, with whom she gave birth to a further nine children.
As a direct result of John’s aggressive approach to securing Isabella’s hand in marriage, King Philip II confiscated all of the couple’s French lands and war ensued. Early in his reign, John lost the regions of Normandy, Anjou and Maine. Anjou and Maine had defected on the death of Richard, choosing Arthur as their lord. John had Arthur killed and in retaliation King Philip occupied Normandy, Anjou and Maine. John attempted to regain the territories he had lost but due to a lack of resources, bad treatment of allies and general incompetence, John lost all English territories on the continent to Philip of France except the Duchy of Aquitaine.
In 1207 King John fell out with Pope Innocent III over who should become the next Archbishop of Canterbury. This disagreement led to the Pope excommunicating John and placing England under Church law, an act that made any christenings or marriages performed in the country invalid without the pope’s personal consent. The English people were horrified and King John became more unpopular than ever. It took until 1213 for John to reconcile with the pope in formal agreement that involved the exchange cash and was thought to be humiliating to the King.
The loss of all of England’s French territories led to the Baron’s Revolt and John was forced to agree to the Magna Carta, granting certain rights to English men and women, in order to avoid a full scale civil war. Although important politically and symbolically, Magna Carta did not bring about an end to war and after two years of fighting, King John became gravely ill. John’s personal treasure was lost when his carriage was washed away in the Wash, Lincolnshire and just a few days later he met with his death. King John was succeeded by King Henry III.
Legacy of King John
As is the nature of historiography, historian’s opinions on King John have changed over time. John’s reign is remembered for his huge military defeats, most notably his loss of Normandy to Philip II of France in the first few years of his reign. Although it is difficult to gauge public opinion during the Middle Ages, when very little was recorded by the mostly illiterate masses, it is thought that John was an unpopular King. His taxes were high, his foreign campaigns unsuccessful, and his private life said to be immoral.
However, King John does have his supporters. As a regular judge at the Royal Courts, John was thought to have been diligent and fair and he implemented a fastidious approach to record-taking that the archivists of today will thank him for.
John managed to aggrieve the Pope of the time, almost all of his powerful Barons and King Philip II of France during his reign, leading many to conclude that he was inept in the political subtlety needed to be a successful monarch. John was forced to seal the Magna Carta, a document so important it has been preserved to present day, and eventually lost his throne under the threat of a devastating civil war.
Film and TV Shows Featuring King John
- Ironclad (2011)
- Robin Hood (2010)
- The Lion in Winter (2003)
- Ivanhoe (1997) TV Show
- The Life and Death of King John (1984)
- Ivanhoe (1952)
- King John (1899) Short Silent Film
- Morris, Marc (2015) King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to the Magna Carta
- Turner, Ralph V. (2009)King John: England’s Evil King?
- Church, Stephen D. (2007)King John: New Interpretations
- Lloyd, Alan. (1972)The Maligned Monarch: a Life of King John of England.
- Holt, James Clarke. (1963)King John
Locations Related to King John
- King John spent most of his childhood at Fontevrault Abbey in Anjou. Nothing remains of the original building, but the area has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
- King John’s Castle is located in Limerick City, Ireland.
- The Magna Carta is on display at the British Library in London, UK.
- An effigy of King John can be found within Worchester Cathedral