King John - England's worst king?

20 February 2015

By Pan Macmillan

To coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the publication of  a brilliant new biography by Stephen Church of the man condemned by history  as England’s worst king, the subject of our primer this month is King John.

 The Last in Line

 John was born, most likely, on Christmas Eve 1166, the youngest of five sons of  King Henry II of the House of Angevin and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

 His father, whose knights would murder the troublesome priest Thomas Beckett  on little more than a nod when John was just three, was arguably then the  greatest ruler in Western Europe. Over the course of his reign, Henry’s dominions  stretched from the Pyrenees in the South of France to Ireland and the borders of  Scotland.

 John Lackland

 In 1169, Henry II made the Treaty of Montmiral, in which he agreed to divide his  lands between his sons. His eldest son, also named Henry, was to receive the  kingdom of England, the duchy of Normandy and the county of Anjou and,  uniquely for a king of England, was crowned during his father’s lifetime on 14  June 1170. Richard would inherit his mother, Eleanor’s lands in Aquitaine.  Geoffrey was to have Brittany. But John, if still an infant, was to get nothing. He  was subsequently nickname ‘Lackland’ (ie lacking lands), by his father, whose  court was famed for its cruel verbal wit.

An Absent Parent

John’s formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was in prison for much of his early life. After encouraging her other three sons to lead an unsuccessful rebellion against their own father in the so-called War Without Love in 1173, Eleanor was kept under close confinement until 1883 and only fully free after her husband’s death six years later.

Sibling Rivalries

Family feuds were something of an Angevin specialty. John’s first significant political endeavour was an attack against his brother. Following the death of the young King Henry in 1183, Henry II had ordered Richard, his eldest surviving son and now heir apparent to the English throne, to hand Aquitaine over to John. He refused, and so Henry ordered John and his elder sibling Geoffrey to launch a campaign against their brother’s duchy. It failed and Richard got to keep Aquitaine.

Stingy to Soliders

Dispatched to Ireland by his father to re-enforce English rule in April 1185, John was back in England by Christmas, his mission a failure and the country in revolt against him, their notional king.

Alienating the Irish by unfairly dishing out land to his cronies and verbally and physically abusing native lords, including pulling their beards, John also reputedly failed to regularly pay his stipendiary troops, leading many of them to desert and join the opposing side.

Unfairly or otherwise,avarice and parsimony were to prove to something of recurring leitmotifs of John’s reign.

The Enemy List

When Henry II died on 6 July 1189, his eldest son Richard and Philip II of France were arrayed against him. On his deathbed, he is supposed to have asked for the names of all those who opposed him to be read out. John, who weighing up the odds had also now turned against his father, was the first name called.

Keep it in the Family

John’s first marriage was to his half-second cousin, Isabella of Gloucester, in 1189 and in defiance of the Archbishop of Canterbury who had prohibited the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity.

Shortly after gaining the throne of England following the unexpected death of his crusading brother Richard I from gangrene on 6 April 1199, he successful had the marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity.

His second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, was twelve years old at the time of their marriage in 1200.

I Swear

John’s favourite oath was ‘God's teeth’.

To Lose One Country is Careless

By 1204, John had managed to lose Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Poitou, the northern part of Aquitaine, from the stock of lands he inherited upon becoming king.
The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, is a document that paved the  way for an English constitutional monarchy by establishing that even a god-given king was subject to the laws of the land.

The original document was agreed at Runnymeade, west of Staines  on the   River Thames in June 1215.

It arose as a peace settlement between John and a group of English  barons, led by Robert Fitzwalter, who growing weary of their  monarch’s long-standing   abuse of feudal powers, and in particular  years of levelling taxes and seizing land to fund wars in France, had  renounced their fealty to the king and taken London in a coup  against the crown.

Given the tortuousness of the Angevin line of succession, it perhaps  not surprising that seven of the first eight clauses in the Magna Carta  were concerned with inheritance.

 Once the Magna Carta was agreed, the barons staged what would  prove to be  a premature celebration in the form of a jousting  tournament at Hounslow.

 Sealed not Signed

 John did not sign the Magna Carta, stamping it instead with his  official seal, but he was almost certainly not illiterate. Evidence  suggests he read both French and Latin.

The Bitter End

During the final year of his life, and having reneged on the Magna Carta after successfully obtaining an annulment on its legality from Pope Innocent III, John lost control of London, Westminster and most of Southern England. The rebellious English barons by then having invited Prince Louis, son of the King of France, to land at Thanet and proceed to seize the English throne. When John died in Newark Castle from dysentery on the night of 18 October 1216, the country was in the middle of a civil war. The little-mourned and, ever since, much-maligned king was buried at Worcester Cathedral where his tomb can still be visited today. 

Magna Carta © annalynnc/