John (King of England)

John, 1167–1216, king of England (1199–1216), son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Early Life

The king's youngest son, John was left out of Henry's original division of territory among his sons and was nicknamed John Lackland. He was, however, his father's favorite, and despite the opposition of his brothers (whose rebellion of 1173–74 was provoked by Henry's plans for John), he later received scattered possessions in England and France and the lordship of Ireland. His brief expedition to Ireland in 1185 was badly mismanaged.

Under Richard I

John deserted his dying father in 1189 and joined the rebellion of his brother Richard, who succeeded to the throne as Richard I in the same year. The new king generously conferred lands and titles on John. After Richard's departure on the Third Crusade, John led a rebellion against the chancellor, William of Longchamp, had himself acknowledged (1191) temporary ruler and heir to the throne, and conspired with Philip II of France to supplant Richard on the throne. This plot was successfully thwarted by those loyal to Richard, including the queen mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard pardoned John's treachery.


Early Conflicts

On Richard's death, John ascended the English throne to the exclusion of his nephew, Arthur I of Brittany. The supporters of Arthur, aided by King Philip, began a formidable revolt in France. At this time John alienated public opinion in England by divorcing his first wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and made enemies in France by marrying Isabel of Angoulême, who had been betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. In 1202, Arthur was defeated and captured, and it is thought that John murdered him in 1203. Philip continued the war and gradually gained ground until by 1206 he was in control of Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, Maine, and Touraine. John had lost all his French dominions except Aquitaine and a part of Poitou, which was a critical factor in his subsequent unpopularity.

The death (1205) of John's chancellor, Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, not only removed a moderating influence on the king but precipitated a crisis with the English church. John refused (1206) to accept the election of Stephen Langton as Walter's successor at Canterbury, and as a result Pope Innocent III placed (1208) England under interdict and excommunicated (1209) the king. The quarrel continued until 1213 when John, threatened by the danger of a French invasion and by increasing disaffection among the English barons, surrendered his kingdom to the pope and received it back as a papal fief.

The Magna Carta

John's submission to the pope improved his situation. Now backed by the pope, he formed an expedition to wage war on Philip in Poitou. However, while John was at La Rochelle, his allies, Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV (his nephew) and the count of Flanders, were decisively beaten by Philip at Bouvines in 1214. John had resorted to all means to secure men and money for his Poitou campaign, and after returning home he attempted to collect scutage from the barons who had refused to aid him on the expedition.

Abuses of feudal customs and extortion of money from the barons and the towns, not only by John but by Henry II and Richard I, had aroused intense opposition, which increased in John's unfortunate reign. The barons now rose in overwhelming force against the king, and John in capitulation set his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June, 1215. Thus, the most famous document of English constitutional history was the fruit of predominantly baronial force.

John, supported by the pope, gathered forces and renewed the struggle with the barons, who sought the aid of Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII). In the midst of this campaign John died, and his son, Henry III, was left to carry on the royal cause.

Character and Influence

John, though often cruel and treacherous, was an excellent administrator, much concerned with rendering justice among his subjects. The basic cause of his conflicts with the barons was not that he was an innovator in trying to wield an absolute royal power, but that in so doing he ignored and contravened the traditional feudal relationship between the crown and the nobility. The modern hostile picture of John is primarily the work of subsequent chroniclers, mainly Roger of Wendover and Matthew of Paris.


See biographies by K. Margate (1902, repr. 1970), J. T. Appleby (1958), W. L. Warren (1961, rev. ed. 1978), J. C. Holt (1963), and A. Lloyd (1972); A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087–1216 (2d ed. 1955); D. T. Curren-Aquino, ed., King John: New Perspectives (1988). King John is the central character in Shakespeare play of the same name.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

John (King of England): Selected full-text books and articles

John, King of England By John T. Appleby Alfred A. Knopf, 1959
From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272 By Christopher Brooke Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1961
Librarian's tip: Chap. 12 "Richard I and John"
The Governance of Mediaeval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta By H. G. Richardson; G. O. Sayles Edinburgh University Press, 1963
The Royal Forests of Medieval England By Charles R. Young University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Angevin System at Work" and Chap. 4 "The Forest Becomes a Political Issue"
The Thirteenth Century, 1216-1307 By Maurice Powicke Clarendon Press, 1962 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Minority of Henry III"
FREE! The Story of Canterbury By G. R. Stirling Taylor; Katherine Kimball J. M. Dent & Sons, 1912
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "King John, the Pope, and Canterbury"
Regalian Right in Medieval England By Margaret Howell University of London, Athlone Press, 1962
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Development of the Right In the Reign of King John"
The Household Knights of King John By S. D. Church Cambridge University Press, 1999
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