John of England

By the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou
Reign April 6, 1199 – October 18/19, 1216
Coronation May 27, 1199
Queen Isabella of Angouleme
(c. 11871246)
Issue Henry III (12071272)
Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall
Joan of England (12101238)
Isabella of England (12141241)
Eleanor of England (12151275)
Royal House Plantagenet
Father Henry II (11331189)
Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (11241204)
Born December 24, 1167
Beaumont Palace, Oxford
Died October 18 / 19, 1216
Buried Worcester Cathedral
English Royalty
House of Plantagenet

Henry II
   William, Count of Poitiers
   Henry the Young King
   Richard I
   Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany
   King John
   Matilda of England
   Leonora of England
   Joan of England
Richard I
   Henry III
   Richard, Earl of Cornwall
   Joan of England
   Isabella of England
   Eleanor of England
Henry III
   Edward I
   Margaret of England
   Beatrice of England
   Edmund, Earl of Lancaster
Edward I
   Joan of England, Countess of Gloucester
   Alphonso, Earl of Chester
   Edward II
   Thomas, Earl of Norfolk
   Edmund, Earl of Kent
Edward II
   Edward III
   John, Earl of Cornwall
   Eleanor of England
   Joan of England
Edward III
   Edward, Prince of Wales
   Lionel, Duke of Clarence
   John, Duke of Lancaster
   Edmund, Duke of York
   Thomas, Duke of Gloucester
   Joan of England
   Isabella of England
    Richard II
    Philippa, Countess of Ulster
    Philippa of Lancaster
    Elizabeth of Lancaster
    Henry IV
    Catherine of Lancaster
    Edward, Duke of York
    Richard, Earl of Cambridge
    Constance of York
    Anne of Gloucester
Richard II

John (French: Jean) (December 24, c. 1166 – October 18/19, 1216) reigned as King of England from April 6, 1199, until his death. He succeeded to the throne as the younger brother of King Richard I (known in later times as "Richard the Lionheart"). John acquired the nicknames of "Lackland" ("Sans Terre" in French; "Johann ohne Land" in German) for his lack of an inheritance as the youngest son and for his loss of territory to France, and of "Soft-sword" for his alleged military ineptitude. He was a Plantagenet or Angevin King.



Born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, John was the fifth son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was almost certainly born in 1166 instead of 1167, as is sometimes claimed. King Henry and Queen Eleanor were not together nine months prior to December 1167, but they were together in March 1166. Also, John was born at Oxford on or near Christmas, but Eleanor and Henry spent Christmas 1167 in Normandy. The canon of Laon, writing a century later, states John was named after Saint John the Apostle, on whose feast day (December 27) he was born. Ralph of Diceto also states that John was born in 1166, and that Queen Eleanor named him.

He was a younger maternal half-brother of Marie de Champagne and Alix of France. He was a younger brother of William, Count of Poitiers, Henry the Young King, Matilda of England, Richard I of England, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, Leonora of Aquitaine and Joan of England.

Early life

While John was always his father's favourite son, as the youngest he could expect no inheritance. His family life was tumultuous, with his older brothers all involved in rebellions against Henry. Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173, when John was a small boy. Gerald of Wales relates that King Henry had a curious painting in a chamber of Winchester Castle, depicting an eagle being attacked by three of its chicks, while a fourth chick crouched, waiting for its chance to strike. When asked the meaning of this picture, King Henry said:

"The four young ones of the eagle are my four sons, who will not cease persecuting me even unto death. And the youngest, whom I now embrace with such tender affection, will someday afflict me more grievously and perilously than all the others."

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 Aquitaine, one of many unfriendly encounters between the two. In 1185, John became the ruler of Ireland, whose people grew to despise him, causing John to leave after only eight months.

Richard's absence

During Richard's absence on the Third Crusade from 1190 to 1194, John attempted to overthrow William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely and Richard's designated justiciar. 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 with the hero now called "Robin Hood."

While returning from the Crusade, Richard was captured and imprisoned by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. John is said to have sent a letter to Henry asking him to keep Richard away from England for as long as possible. But Richard's supporters paid a ransom for his release because they thought that John would make a terrible King. On his return to England in 1194, Richard forgave John and named him as his heir.

Other historians argue that John did not attempt to otherthrow Richard, but rather did his best to improve a country ruined by Richard's excessive taxes used to fund the Crusade. It is most likely that the image of subversion was given to John by later monk chroniclers, who resented his refusal to go on the ill-fated Fourth Crusade.


John of England depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)
John of England depicted in Cassell's History of England (1902)

Dispute with Arthur

When Richard died, John did not gain immediate universal recognition as king. Some regarded his young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the son of John's late brother Geoffrey, as the rightful heir. Arthur fought with his uncle John for the throne, and enjoyed the support of King Philip II of France. The conflict between Arthur and King John had fatal consequences.

The war upset the barons of Poitou enough for them to seek redress from the King of France, who was King John's feudal overlord with respect to certain terrorities on the Continent. In 1202, John was summoned to the French court to answer the charges. John refused and, under feudal law, because of his failure of service to his lord, the French King claimed the lands and territories ruled by King John as Count of Poitou, declaring all John's French territories except Gascony in the southwest forfeit. The French promptly invaded Normandy; King Philip II invested Arthur with all those fiefs King John once held (except for Normandy), and betrothed him to his daughter Mary.

With this war to supply across the Channel, in 1203 John ordered all shipyards (including inland places such as Gloucester) in England to be responsible for at least one ship, with places such as the newly-built Portsmouth being responsible for several. He made Portsmouth the new home of the Navy (the Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Edward the Confessor, had royal harbours at Sandwich, Kent). By the end of 1204, he had 45 large galleys available to him, and from then on an average of 4 new ones every year. He also created an Admiralty of four admirals, responsible for various parts of the new Navy. During John's reign major improvements were made in ship design, including the addition of sails and removable forecastles. He also created the first big transport ships, called buisses. John is sometimes accredited with the founding of the modern Royal Navy. What is known about this Navy comes from the Pipe Rolls, as these achievements are completely ignored by the chroniclers and early historians.

In the hope of avoiding trouble in England and Wales whilst he was away fighting to recover his French lands, in 1205 John created an alliance in which he married off his illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great.

As part of the war, Arthur attempted to kidnap his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau, but was defeated and captured by John's forces. Arthur was imprisoned first at Falaise and then at Rouen. No one is certain what happened to Arthur after that. According to the Margam Annals, on 3 April 1203: :"After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time in the castle of Rouen... when [John] was drunk and possessed by the devil he slew [Arthur] with his own hand and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine." However, the officer commanding the Rouen fortress, Hubert de Burgh, claimed to have delivered Arthur around Easter 1203 to agents of the King sent to castrate him and that Arthur had died of shock. Hubert later retracted his statement and claimed Arthur still lived, but no one ever saw Arthur alive again and the supposition that he was murdered caused Brittany and later Normandy to rebel against King John.

Besides Arthur, John also captured his niece Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany. Eleanor remained a prisoner the rest of her life (which ended in 1241); through deeds such as these, John acquired a reputation for ruthlessness.

Dispute with the Pope

When Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury died on 13 July 1205, John became involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III. The monks of Christ Church chapter in Canterbury claimed the sole right to elect Hubert's successor, but both the English bishops and the King had an interest in the choice of successor to this powerful office. When their dispute could not be settled, the monks secretly elected one of their members as Archbishop. A second election imposed by John resulted in another nominee. When they both appeared in Rome, Innocent disavowed both elections and his candidate, Stephen Langton, was elected over the objections of John's observers. Innocent thus disregarded the king's rights in selection of his own vassals. John was supported in his position by the English barons and many of the English bishops and refused to accept Langton.

John expelled the Canterbury monks in July 1207 and the Pope ordered an interdict against the kingdom. John immediately retaliated by seizure of church property for failure to provide feudal service, and the fight was on. The pious of England were theoretically left without the comforts of the church, but over a period they became used to this deprivation. The pope, meanwhile, realized that too long a period without church services could lead to loss of faith, and gave permission for some churches to hold Mass behind closed doors in 1209. In 1212, they allowed last rites to the dying. While the interdict was a burden to many, it did not result in rebellion against John.

In November of 1209 John himself was excommunicated, and, in February 1213, Innocent threatened stronger measures unless John submitted. The papal terms for submission were accepted in the presence of the papal legate in 1213 (traditionally at the Templar Church at Dover); in addition, John offered to surrender the Kingdom of England to God and the Saints Peter and Paul for a feudal service of 1000 marks annually, 700 for England and 300 for Ireland. With this submission, John gained the valuable support of his papal overlord in his new dispute with the English barons.

Dispute with the barons

John of England signs Magna Carta – fanciful illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)
John of England signs Magna Carta – fanciful illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)

Having successfully put down the Welsh Uprising of 1211 and settling his dispute with the papacy, John turned his attentions back to his overseas interests. The European wars culminated in defeat at the Battle of Bouvines, which forced the king to accept an unfavourable peace with France.

This finally turned the barons against him (some had already rebelled against him after he was excommunicated), and he met their leaders at Runnymede, near London, on June 15, 1215, to sign the Great Charter called, in Latin, Magna Carta. Because he had signed under duress, however, John received approval from his overlord the Pope to break his word as soon as hostilities had ceased, provoking the First Barons' War and an invited French invasion by Prince Louis of France (whom the majority of the English barons had invited to replace John on the throne).

Matthew Paris records how John was so desperate for support against the barons that he sent an emissary in 1213 to the North African Emir, Mohammed An-Nasir, offering to help Muslims in their campaigns in Spain against the Catholic king of Aragon and to convert to Islam in return for Islamic aid against his enemies.


Retreating from the French invasion, John crossed the marshy area known as The Wash in East Anglia and lost his most valuable treasures, including the Crown Jewels to the unexpected incoming tide. This dealt him a terrible blow, which affected his health and state of mind, and he succumbed to dysentery, dying on October 18 or 19, at Newark (then in Lincolnshire, now on Nottinghamshire's border with that county). Numerous, if fictitious, accounts circulated soon after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums or a "surfeit of peaches". He was buried in Worcester Cathedral in the city of Worcester. His nine-year-old son succeeded him and became King Henry III of England (1216–72), and although Louis continued to claim the English throne, the barons switched their allegiance to the new king, forcing Louis to give up his claim and sign the Treaty of Lambeth in 1217.

Reputation and overview

King John's reign has been traditionally characterised as one of the most disastrous in English history: it began with defeats—he lost Normandy to Philippe Auguste of France in his first five years on the throne—and ended with England torn by civil war and himself on the verge of being forced out of power. In 1213, he made England a papal fief to resolve a conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, and his rebellious barons forced him to sign Magna Carta in 1215, the act for which he is best remembered. Some have argued, however, that John's rule was no better or worse than those of kings Richard I or Henry III, adding that (unlike Richard) he spent the majority of his reign in England. Be that as it may, his reputation is a reason many English monarchs have refrained from giving the name John to their expected heirs.

As far as the administration of his kingdom went, John functioned as an efficient ruler, but he won the disapproval of the English barons by taxing them in ways that were outside those traditionally allowed by feudal overlords. The tax known as scutage, payment made instead of providing knights (as required by Feudal law), became particularly unpopular. John was a very fair-minded and well informed king, however, often acting as a Judge in the Royal Courts, and his justice was much sought after. Also, John's employment of an extremely able Chancellor and certain clerks resulted in the first proper set of records - the Pipe Rolls.

Medieval historian C. Warren Hollister called John an "enigmatic figure":

talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. He was compared in a recent scholarly article, perhaps unfairly, with Richard Nixon. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the halfheartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.

Depictions in fiction

These reflect the overwhelming view of his reputation:

Marriage and issue

In 1189, John was married to Isabel of Gloucester, daughter and heiress of William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester (she is given several alternative names by history, including Avisa, Hawise, 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, and she was never acknowledged as queen. (She then married Geoffrey de Mandeville as her second husband and Hubert de Burgh as her third).

John remarried, on August 24, 1200, Isabelle of Angoulême, who was twenty years his junior. She was the daughter of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angouleme. John had kidnapped her from her fiancée, Hugh X of Lusignan. Isabelle eventually produced five children, including two sons (Henry and Richard), and three daughters (Joan, Isabella and Eleanor).

John is given a great taste for lechery by the chroniclers of his age, and even allowing some embellishment, he did have many illegitimate children. Matthew Paris accuses him of being envious of many of his barons and kinsfolk, and seducing their more attractive daughters and sisters. Roger of Wendover describes an incident that occurred when John became enamoured with Margaret, the wife of Eustace de Vesci and an illegitimate daughter of King William I of Scotland. Her husband substituted a prostitute in her place when the king came to Margaret's bed in the dark of night; the next morning, when John boasted to Vesci of how good his wife was in bed, Vesci confessed and fled.

Besides Joan, the wife of Llywelyn Fawr, his illegitimate daughter by a woman named Clemence, John had a son named Richard Fitz Roy by his first cousin, a daughter of his uncle Hamelin de Warenne. By another mistress, Hawise, John had Oliver FitzRoy, who accompanied the papal legate Pelayo to Damietta in 1218, and never returned. By an unknown mistress (or mistresses) John fathered: Geoffrey FitzRoy, who went on expedition to Poitou in 1205 and died there; John FitzRoy, a clerk in 1201; Henry FitzRoy, who died in 1245; Osbert Gifford, who was given lands in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex, and is last seen alive in 1216; Eudes FitzRoy, who accompanied his half-brother Richard on Crusade and died in the Holy Land in 1241; Bartholomew FitzRoy, a member of the order of Friars Preachers; Maud FitzRoy, Abbess of Barking, who died in 1252; Isabel FitzRoy, wife of Richard Fitz Ives; and Philip FitzRoy, found living in 1263. (FitzRoy is Norman-French for son of the king.)


  • According to records of payment made to King John's bath attendant, William Aquarius, the king bathed on average about once every three weeks, which cost a considerable sum of 5d to 6d each, suggesting an elaborate and ceremonial affair. Although this may seem barbaric by modern standards, it was civilised compared to monks who were expected to bathe three times a year, with the right not to bathe at all if they so chose.
  • John is recorded to have dressed very well in coats made of fur from sable and ermine and other exotic furs such as polar bear.
  • In 2006, he was selected by the BBC History Magazine as the 13th century's worst Briton. (BBC)

Alleged illiteracy

For a long time, schoolchildren have been told that King John had to approve Magna Carta by attaching his seal to it because he could not sign it, lacking the ability to read or write. This textbook inaccuracy ignored the fact that King John had a large library he treasured until the end of his life. Whether the original authors of these errors knew better and oversimplified because they wrote for children, or whether they had been misinformed themselves, is unknown. As a result of these writings, generations of adults remembered mainly two things about "wicked King John," both of them wrong. (The other "fact" was that, if Robin Hood had not stepped in, Prince John would have embezzled the money raised to ransom King Richard. The fact is that John did embezzle the ransom money, by creating forged seals. Robin Hood, on the other hand, may or may not have actually existed.)

King John did actually sign the draft of the Charter that the negotiating parties 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 they then sealed and delivered to the appropriate officials. In those days, legal documents were made official by seals, not by signatures. (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 sigilli ("place of the seal"), signifying that the signer has used 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 they did so in accordance with current legal practice, not because the bishops could not write their own names.

Henry II had at first intended that John would receive an education to go into the Church, which would have meant Henry did not have to give him any land. In 1171, however, Henry began negotiations to betroth John to the daughter of Count Humbert III of Savoy (who had no son yet and so wanted a son-in-law.) After that, talk of making John a cleric ceased. John's parents had both received a good education — Henry spoke some half dozen languages, and Eleanor had attended lectures at what would soon become the University of Paris — in addition to what they had learned of law and government, religion, and literature. John himself had received one of the best educations of any king of England. Some of the books the records show he read included: De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei by Hugh of St. Victor, Sentences by Peter Lombard, The Treatise of Origen, and a history of England—potentially Wace's Roman de Brut, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae.


King John, by W.L. Warren ISBN 0520036433

The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 by Frank Barlow ISBN 0582495040

Medieval Europe: A Short History (Seventh Edition), by C. Warren Hollister, ISBN 0-07-029637-5


Preceded by:
Richard I
King of England
Succeeded by:
Henry III
Duke of Aquitaine
Count of Maine
Philip II of France
Duke of Normandy
Preceded by:
Lord of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Henry III
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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