King John of England

King John Stag Hunting
King John Stag Hunting. WIkimedia Commons. From the manuscript De Rege Johanne, 1300-1400

King John was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He lost many of his family’s Angevin lands on the continent, and was forced to concede numerous rights to his barons in the Magna Carta, which has led to John being considered a colossal failure. In later years many poor reputations have been rolled back by modern supporters, and while John's financial management is now being reassessed, the anniversary of the Magna Carta saw almost every popular commentator criticise John for - at best - terrible leadership and at worst terrible oppression.

While historians are more positive, this is not getting through. His missing gold appears in the national English newspapers every few years, but is never found.

Youth and Struggle for the Crown

King John was the youngest son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine to survive childhood, being born in 1166. It appears that John was the favoured son of Henry, and so the king tried to find him large lands to live from. One grant of several castles, given when John was first to be married (to an Italian heiress), provoked anger among his brothers and started a war between them. Henry II won, but John was given only a little land in the resulting settlement. John was betrothed in 1176 to Isabella, heir to the rich earldom of Gloucester. When John’s older brother Richard became heir to his father's throne, Henry II wanted to promote Richard to inheriting England, Normandy and Anjou, and give John Richard’s current holding of Aquitaine, but Richard refused to concede even this and another round of family warfare followed.

Henry turned down the Kingdom of Jerusalem for both himself and John (who begged to accept it), and then John was lined up for the command of Ireland. He visited, but proved to be seriously indiscrete, developing a careless reputation and returning home a failure. When Richard rebelled again – Henry II was at the time refusing to recognise Richard as his heir – John supported him.

The conflict broke Henry, and he died.

When Richard became King Richard I of England in July 1189, John was made count of Mortain, plus given other lands and a large income, as well as staying as Lord of Ireland and finally marrying Isabella. In return, John promised to stay out of England when Richard went on crusade, although their mother persuaded Richard to drop this clause. Richard then went, establishing a martial reputation that saw him considered a hero for generations; John, who stayed home, would end up achieving the precise opposite. Here, as with the Jerusalem episode, John's life could have ended up very different.

The man who Richard left in charge of England soon grew unpopular, and John set up what was almost a rival government. As war loomed between John and the official administration, Richard sent a new man back from the crusade to take charge and sort things out. John’s hopes of immediate control were dashed, but he still schemed for the throne, sometimes in conjunction with the King of France, who was continuing a long tradition of interference in their rival. When Richard was captured returning from the crusade John signed a deal with the French and made a move for the crown of England itself, but failed.

However, John was prepared to surrender notable parts of his brother’s lands to the French in return for their recognition and this became known. Consequently, when Richard’s ransom was paid and he returned in 1194, John was exiled and stripped of all possessions. Richard relented some in 1195, returning some lands, and totally in 1196 when John became the heir to the English throne.

John as King

In 1199 Richard died - while on campaign, killed by an (un)lucky shot, before he could ruin his reputation - and John claimed the throne of England. He was accepted by Normandy, and his mother secured Aquitaine, but his claim to the rest was in trouble. He had to fight and negotiate and he was challenged by his nephew Arthur. In concluding peace, Arthur kept Brittany (held from John), while John held his lands from the King of France, who was recognised as John’s overlord on the continent, in a manner greater than was ever forced out of John’s father.

This would have a crucial impact later in the reign. However, historians who have cast a careful eye over John’s early reign have identified a crisis had already begun: many nobles distrusted John because of his previous actions, and doubted whether he would treat them correctly.

The marriage to Isabella of Gloucester was dissolved because of alleged consanguinity, and John looked for a new bride. He found one in the form of another Isabella, heiress to Angoulême, and he married her as he tried to involve himself in the machinations of the Angoulême and Lusignan family. Unfortunately Isabella had been engaged to Hugh IX de Lusignan and the result was a rebellion by Hugh and the involvement of French King Philip II. Had Hugh married Isabella, he would have commanded a powerful region and threatened John’s power in Aquitaine, so the break benefitted John. But, while marrying Isabella was a provocation to Hugh, John continued to snub and anger the man, pushing his rebellion.

In his position as French King, Philip ordered John to his court (as he could any other noble who held lands from him), but John refused. Philip then revoked John’s lands and a war began, but this was more a move to strengthen the French crown than any vote of faith in Hugh. John began by capturing a mass of the leading rebels who were sieging his mother, but threw the advantage away. However, one of the prisoners, his nephew Arthur of Brittany, mysteriously died, leading most to conclude murder by John. By 1204 the French had taken Normandy - John’s barons undermined his war plans in 1205 – and by the start of 1206 they’d taken Anjou, Maine and chunks of Poitou as nobles deserted John all over the place. John was in danger of losing all the lands his predecessors had gained on the continent, although he managed small gains during 1206 to stabilize things.

After being forced both to reside in England more permanently, and to produce more money from his kingdom for war, John proceeded to develop and strengthen the royal administration.

On the one hand this provided the crown with more resources and strengthened royal power, on the other it upset nobles and made John, already a military failure, even more unpopular. John toured extensively within England, hearing many court cases in person: he had a great personal interest in, and a great ability for, the administration of his kingdom, although the goal was always more money for the crown.

When the see of Canterbury became available in 1206, John’s nomination – John de Gray - was cancelled by Pope Innocent III, who secured Stephen Langton for the position. John objected, citing traditional English rights, but in the following argument Innocent excommunicated John. The latter now started draining the church of funds, raising a large sum he partly spent on a new navy – John has been called the founder of the English navy - before conceding that the pope would be a useful ally against the French and coming to an agreement in 1212. John then handed his kingdom over to the Pope, who bestowed it on John as a vassal for a thousand marks a year. While this might seem curious, it was really a cunning way to get Papal support against both France, and against the rebel barons of 1215. By the end of 1214 John had succeeded in mending his bridges with the top of the church, but his actions had alienated many further down, and his lords. It also angered the monastic chroniclers and writers historians have to use and may be one reason why so many of the modern histories have been so critical of King John, while the modern historians are increasingly peeling criticism away. Well, not all of them.

Rebellion and Magna Carta

While many lords of England had grown discontented with John, only a few had rebelled against him, despite widespread baronial discontent stretching back to before John took the throne. However, in 1214 John returned to France with an army and failed to do any damage except gain a truce, having once more been let down by vacillating barons and the failures of allies. When he returned a minority of barons took the chance to rebel and demand a charter of rights, and when they were able to take London in 1215 John was forced into negotiations as he looked for a solution. These talks took place at Runnymede, and on June 15 1215 agreement was made on the Articles of the Barons. Later known as Magna Carta, this became one of the pivotal documents in English, and to some extents western, history.

More on Magna Carta

In the short term, Magna Carta lasted just three months before the war between John and the rebels continued. Innocent III supported John, who struck back hard at the baron’s lands, but he rejected a chance to attack London and instead wasted the north. This allowed time for the rebels to appeal to Prince Louis of France, for him to gather an army, and for a successful landing to take place. As John retreated north again rather than fight Louis he may have lost a portion of his treasury and definitely fell ill and died. This proved a blessing for England as the regency of John’s son Henry were able to reissue Magna Carta, thus splitting the rebels into two camps, and Louis was soon ejected.


Until the revisionism of the twentieth century, John was rarely well regarded by writers and historians. He lost wars and land, and is seen as the loser by giving the Magna Carta. But John had a keen, incisive mind, which he applied well to government. Unfortunately, this was negated by an insecurity about people who could challenge him, by his attempts to control barons through fear and debt rather than conciliation, through his lack of magnanimity and insults. It is difficult to be positive about a man who lost generations of royal expansion, which will always be clearly chartable. Maps can make for grim reading. But there's little that merits calling King John 'evil', as a British newspaper did.