John (24 Dec 1166 – 19 Oct 1216) was King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216 aged 49. Born in Oxford’s Beaumont Palace, he was later laid to rest in the beautiful Worcester Cathedral. During his life John became a controversial and highly unpopular monarch, striking a sharp contrast to his predecessor Richard I the Lionheart, who is remembered as one of England’s most celebrated kings. He was succeeded by the nine-year-old Henry III, after he died of dysentery whilst warring against his own barons.
Perhaps not entirely a surprise given his legacy in popular media such as the chronicles of Robin Hood, King John was an incredibly unsuccessful monarch. In less than twenty years, he bankrupted the royal coffers and managed to lose vast swathes of land that England had taken from France in part due to war and in part due to marriage and inheritance. Furthermore, his behaviour towards the nobility and his blatant disrespect towards the men under his command resulted in a successful rebellion in the year of 1215.
John was not born with an expectancy that he would ever be king. In fact, he was born with two older brothers, and therefore not even expected to inherit any significant territories. This gave birth to his nickname at court, “Lackland,” which was used by many to torment and bully John.
John’s father, Henry II, was a strong and powerful ruler. Under his reign, England prospered like it never had before in the Medieval period, and many, including Henry’s own sons, were jealous of him. In 1170, Henry II instated his son, Henry III the Young King, as reigning monarch. However, Henry III was not actually formally granted any formal powers by his father, and acted as nothing more than a figurehead while his father continued to rule behind the scenes. Spurred on by Henry II’s wife Eleanor, his sons Richard, Geoffrey and Henry III, who were jealous of their father’s power, incited a short-lived rebellion against the crown. Henry won against the coalition of his sons, rebuking them harshly and imprisoning Eleanor. John, as the only one who had not participated in this rebellion, was made Henry’s favourite, and given plentiful lands - often at other noble’s expense - in recognition of this.
His reign officially began in 1199, upon the death of his brother Richard, however he had actually ruled England before this. When Richard I (famously, Richard the Lionheart) was made king, he declared his intention to embark on the Third Crusade, and appointed John as the overseer of his Anglo-French empire while he was away. During this time, John rebelled against Richard, trying to convince the country that he was dead and that he should be made king in his absence. However, Richard was far from dead and, upon his return, made John kneel and beg for his forgiveness. Remarkably, Richard actually granted him this, declaring, “think no more of it, John. You are only a child who has had evil counselors.” A touching display of mercy for an age so typically unforgiving towards treasonous behaviour.
John’s ascendancy to the throne was not without issues, and many of his barons harboured rebellious inclinations towards the newly crowned ruler. In fact, many of them had wished to crown John’s nephew instead, the sixteen year old Arthur of Brittany. When John caught wind of this and a rebellion was raised against him, he launched a surprise attack, capturing the rebel leaders and Arthur. He imprisoned Arthur, and it is said that one evening, he attacked his young nephew in a fit of drunken rage, murdering him.
A dispute with the reigning Pope in 1209 meant that John was actually excommunicated from the Catholic Church during his reign. This was a disastrous blunder, as the excommunication of a king was a valid casus belli (a legal reason to declare war) for neighbouring Catholic rulers, all of whom were hungry for the lands and territory that John had under his control. Furthermore, it ruined his reputation in the eyes of his people, who prized God and religion above even their own king. John mended his relationship with the Papacy in 1214, undoing his excommunication. However, at this point, the damage had already been done.
After a series of unforgivable blunders, John’s barons rose up in rebellion against him for what would not even be the final time during his reign. However, this was a war that John would not win. After forcing a peace, John’s barons demanded that he sign the Magna Carta, a document that famously restricted the powers of the king and enabled the nobility. In a position where he was unable to refuse, John did so, instating a document that remains enshrined in English law even today.
As the last spectacular blunder of his reign, John reneged on his earlier promises to his barons, asking the Pope to declare the Magna Carta an invalid document. The Pope agreed, sparking a civil war between John and his barons once more. Before the war could even conclude, John died, and the nine year old Henry III was crowned king. Henry was managed by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and a statesman who oversaw the ruling of England during Henry’s infant years.
In the midst of a fierce surprise attack against the rebel forces trying to wrestle control of his kingdom, John fell into poor health. Unfavourable conditions compounded this, and in October 1216 he died of Dysentery. Dysentery, for those unaware, is a form of diarrhoea in which symptoms can include bloody stools, stomach cramps, extremely high body temperature, vomiting and headaches.
In modern times, King John is best remembered for the part he played in signing the Magna Carta and for his more infamous reputation borne of the Robin Hood legends. Depicted in most media as a terribly incompetent king, historical accounts of his tumultuous reign have differed through the centuries: Tudor historians looked favourably on him, especially his willingness to oppose Rome and his assertion of the power of the monarchy. Later historians, particularly those of the Victorian and Modern eras, criticise his loss of critical territories for England, and his extremely incompetent management of his armies and resources.