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John of England

King John (December 24, 1167 - October 19, 1216) was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of King Richard I who was known as "Richard the Lionheart". Nicknames are "Lackland" (in French, sans terre) and "Soft-sword".

John is best known for angering the barons to rebellion, so that they forced him to agree to the Magna Carta in 1215, and then signing England over to the Pope to get out of the promises he made in that Great Charter. The truth, however, is that he was no better or worse a king than his immediate predecessor or his successor (which is still not much of a compliment).

Born at Oxford, he was the fifth son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was always his father's favourite son, though being the youngest, he could expect no inheritance (hence his nickname, "Lackland"). In 1189 he married Isabel, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester. (She is given several alternative names by history, including Hawise (or Avice), 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. (She then married Hubert de Burgh).

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. The 1185 though, John was given rule over Ireland, whose people grew to despise him, causing John to leave after only six months. During Richard's absence on crusade, 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 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 was not universally recognised as king. His young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the posthumous son of his brother Geoffrey, was regarded by some as the rightful heir, and John eventually disposed of him around 1203, thus adding to his reputation for ruthlessness. In the meantime, he had married, on August 24, 1200, Isabella of Angouleme, who was twenty years his junior. Isabella eventually produced five children, including two sons (Henry and Richard). At around this time John also 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 would be free to recover his French lands. The French king had declared most of these forfeit in 1204, leaving John only Gascony in the southwest.

As far as the administration of his kingdom went, John was quite a just and enlightened ruler, but he won the disapproval of the barons by taxing them. Particularly unpopular was the tax known as scutage, which was a penalty for those who failed to supply military resources. He also fell out with the Pope by rejecting Stephen Langton, the official candidate for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This resulted in John's being excommunicated. He was having much the same kind of dispute with the church as his father had had before him. Unfortunately, his excommunication was an encouragement to his political rivals to rise against him. Having successfully put down the Welsh uprising of 1211, he turned his attentions back to his overseas interests and regained the approval of Pope Innocent III.

The European wars culminated in a defeat 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 it had been signed under duress, however, John felt entitled to break it as soon as hostilities had ceased. It was the following year that John, retreating from a threatened French invasion, 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 was 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*, and is buried in Worcester Cathedral in the city of Worcester. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son as King Henry III of England.

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

Was King John illiterate?

For a long time, school children have been taught that King John had to approve the Magna Carta by attaching his seal to it because he could not sign it, being unable to read or write. The textbooks that said that were the same kind that said Christopher Columbus wanted to prove the earth was round. Whether the original authors of these errors knew better and oversimplified because they were writing for children, or whether they had been misinformed themselves, the result was generations of adults who remembered mainly two things about "wicked King John," and both of them wrong. (The other one being that if Robin Hood had not stepped in, Prince John would have embezzled the money raised to ransom King Richard.)

In fact, King John did sign the draft of the Charter that was 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 were 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 is using a signature as a substitute for a seal.) 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 it was because it was the legal practice, not because the bishops could not write their own names.

Henry II had at first intended for his son Prince John to be educated 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 Maurienne-Savoy (who had no son yet and so wanted a son-in-law), and after that there was no more talk of making John a churchman. John's parents were both well educated -- Henry II spoke some half dozen languages, and Eleanor of Aquitaine had attended lectures at what was about to become the University of Paris, in addition to what they had been taught of law and government, religion, and literature -- and John was one of the best educated kings England ever had. Some of the books the records show he read were: De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei by Hugh of St. Victor, Sentences by Peter Lombard, The Treatise of Origen, and a history of England that was probably Robert Wace's Roman de Brut, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae.

See also: Constitutional monarchy, Monarchy, Oligarchy


King John, by W.L. Warren ISBN 0520036433

Preceded by:
Richard I
List of British monarchs Succeeded by:
Henry III