King John of England Facts & Worksheets

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    • Background and early years
    • Reign of Richard I
    • Succession and early reign
    • Later reign and disputes with the Church and the barons

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s know more about King John of England!

    Portrait of King John

    • The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was the last of the Angevin kings of England, ruling from 1199 until his death in 1216. His early reign was marked by his struggle to secure his grip on Angevin France whilst the latter part of his reign focused on the recovery of his French territories lost to Philip II of France. An argument with the papacy led to the interdict on England that lasted from 1208 to 1213 and his subsequent excommunication in 1209. The baronial rebellion at the end of John’s reign resulted in the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

    Background and early years

    • Born on 24 December 1166, John was the fourth and youngest surviving son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. His father was the first Angevin king of England while his mother was considered one of the most influential women in medieval Europe.
    • As a young child, John was brought up at an abbey in Anjou, perhaps to prepare him for an ecclesiastical career.
    • He then joined the household of his eldest living brother, Young Henry, where he probably received instruction in hunting and military skills. 
    • John’s father, Henry II, intended to divide his and Eleanor’s territories among Young Henry, Richard and Geoffrey.
    • On the contrary, John, as the youngest child, was initially not intended to inherit substantial lands. For this reason, he was given the nickname ‘Lackland’ by his father.
    • Henry II’s bequeathing of the castles of Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau to John as part of a potential marriage alliance ignited the Great Rebellion of 1173-74, led by Young Henry, Richard and Geoffrey.
    • Eleanor joined the rebellion of John’s brothers, along with many others who resented Henry II and his policies.
    • Despite the several important alliances formed against Henry II, the Great Rebellion was subdued.
    • Following the rebellion of his brothers and his mother, John became the favourite of Henry II.
    • At the age of ten, he was styled as the Lord of Ireland.
    • In 1182, he was then placed in the household of Ranulf Glanville and Hubert Walter.
    • Despite his failure to establish himself in Ireland in 1185, he continued to be his father’s favourite.
    • The deaths of his two brothers, Young Henry in 1183 and Geoffrey in 1186, led to the increase of his political significance.
    • John’s remaining brother Richard then formed an alliance with Philip II of France against their father in 1187.
    • Although he initially remained loyal to Henry II, he switched sides in 1189 when it was certain that Richard would win. Henry II died shortly after this rebellion.

    Reign of Richard I

    • When Richard I became the second Angevin king of England in September 1189, his intention of joining the Third Crusade was already declared. John was rewarded by Richard I with extensive lands and titles both in England and the Angevin territories in France, with the aim of buying his loyalty to the king whilst Richard I was on crusade.

    Philip and King Richard I of England accepting the keys to Acre

    • John was made Count of Mortain, was married to the affluent Isabella of Gloucester, and was granted significant lands in Lancaster and the counties of Cornwall, Derby, Devon, Dorset and Nottingham.
    • In return for these gifts from his brother, he promised not to visit England for the succeeding years while the king was away.
    • Richard I kept royal control of key castles in the counties granted to John, thus preventing John from amassing considerable military and political power.
    • Eleanor convinced Richard I to allow John into England whilst the king was on crusade. 
    • Amidst the unpopularity of the chief justiciar appointed by Richard I, John exploited the situation in England to establish himself as an alternative ruler with his own royal court and men.
    • By October 1191, John was able to take control of the city of London and force Richard I’s chief justiciar into exile. 
    • The Archbishop of Rouen, Walter de Coutances, was sent to England by Richard I to restore order, thereby undermining John’s position.
    • At this, John began to consider an alliance with Philip II of France, but he was persuaded by his mother not to pursue this.
    • When the Third Crusade ended and Richard I failed to immediately return to England, John started to assert that his brother was dead or lost.
    • Richard I had been held captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1192, and John took this opportunity to pursue the alliance with the French king.
    • In exchange for Philip II’s support, John agreed to put aside his first wife to marry the French king’s sister, Alys.
    • In 1193, whilst Richard I was imprisoned in Germany, John attempted to usurp the governance of England but was forced to flee when the English king returned. 
    • He was pardoned by Richard I in 1194. However, he was removed from some of his lands but retained the lordship of Ireland.
    • From then on until his brother’s death, John remained loyal to his brother.
    • He aided the king in the active defence of the Angevin territories in France against Philip II, in which he successfully besieged Évreux castle. Additionally, he was able to seize the town of Gamaches.
    • As a result, John was restored to the counties of Gloucestershire in England and Mortain in France.
    • He appears to have been regarded as Richard I’s heir presumptive in the final years before the king’s death.
    • When Richard I died on 6 April 1199, John held a strong claim to the Angevin inheritance, being the sole surviving son of Henry II.

    Succession and early reign

    • Aside from John, the young Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey, was also a potential claimant. Conflict soon arose when Norman and Angevin traditions held differing views on who should be the successor. John had to fight to secure the Angevin inheritance for himself.
    • At this point, John’s aims appeared to have been no different from the preceding Angevin kings:
      • He sought to maintain his power and authority over all of his territories.
      • He wanted to extend his influence where possible.
      • He hoped to enjoy the rights and privileges of his predecessors.
    • With the support of the majority of the English and Norman nobility and his mother Eleanor, John was invested as Duke of Normandy in April 1199 and crowned king at Westminster Abbey the following month.
    • Arthur, on the other hand, had the backing of the majority of the nobility of Brittany, Maine and Anjou, and the support of Philip II, who had a record of exploiting the quarrels in the Angevin family to break up the Angevin power in France. 
    • As this combined force marched towards Angers and Tours and amidst the threat of the splitting up of the Angevin lands, John travelled to France and adopted a defensive position along the eastern and southern Normandy borders.
    • With the additional support of some French counts, John’s allies forced Arthur and his mother Constance of Brittany into exile. 
    • Philip II saw no point in continuing the campaign and began to negotiate possible terms for peace in early 1200. 
    • The Treaty of Le Goulet agreed between the two kings stipulated that John was recognised as successor in all Richard I’s French possessions, in exchange for financial and territorial concessions to Philip II.
    • In essence, despite having secured the Angevin inheritance, the treaty weakened the feudal position of John.
    • In 1200, French bishops duly declared John’s childless marriage to Isabella of Gloucester void.
    • John began to consider several potential wives and in August, while touring through Aquitaine, he decided to marry Isabelle of Angoulême. 
    • However, Isabelle was already betrothed to Hugh le Brun, a senior noble of the Lusignan family.
    • Additionally, the marriage of John and Isabelle threatened the interests of the Lusignans.
    • Instead of negotiating some form of compensation to the Lusignans, John treated Hugh with disrespect.
    • In 1201, Hugh appealed to Philip II, which led the French king to summon John to attend feudal court in Paris.
    • Refusing to attend the French king’s court, John argued that his status as Duke of Normandy exempted him from performing such feudal duty.
    • His persistent refusal to answer the French king’s summons resulted in the general war in 1202-04, during which he had a temporary success at Mirebeau and had captured Arthur of Brittany, but had lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou to Philip II.
    • John’s failures were brought about by his relatively limited resources and the desertion of his local allies.
    • Following the loss of his valuable French lands, John resided now almost permanently in England, making his governance more personal than his predecessor.
    • After 1204, he sought to reclaim Normandy, which called for English wealth and hence, an efficient means of raising revenue and finance.
    • Under John, the financial administration was marked by taxation on revenues, investigations into the royal forests, taxation of the Jews, a great inquiry into feudal tenures, and the increasingly harsh exploitation of the king’s feudal prerogatives.
    • John’s severe financial measures laid out the material basis for the charges of autocracy later brought against him.

    Later reign and disputes with the Church and the barons

    • Despite being described as a coward by some chroniclers, John made a sound plan for the reclaiming of his Angevin inheritance, especially Normandy.
    • John organised various military campaigns, in which he faced several challenges.
    • His expedition in 1205 was cancelled due to the refusal of the English barons to lend him support. This resulted in a further loss of some of John’s French territories.
    • In 1206, his campaigning ended in stalemate and a two-year truce was made between him and Philip II.
    • Despite his limited resources, John recovered control of Poitou and much of Aquitaine.
    • John’s attention became drawn to the election of the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205.
    • During his assertion of royal authority in the Church by his attempt to appoint his candidate to the see of Canterbury, his relations with the papacy were disastrously affected.
    • In 1206, Pope Innocent III procured the election of Stephen Langton to the see of Canterbury, which was not accepted by John.
    • In March 1208, the pope laid an interdict on England and in November 1209, when the situation in England showed no signs of resolution, he excommunicated John.
    • The interdict and the excommunication did not appear to worry John greatly. In fact, the king was able to earn significant sums from the income of vacant sees and abbeys during this period.
    • By 1213, with England under interdict, John grew increasingly worried that Philip II would attack England on behalf of the papacy. 
    • Under mounting political pressure, John considered making peace with Pope Innocent III and forging an alliance with him.
    • John reconciled with the pope in May 1213 at Dover.
    • The reconciliation between John and the pope prevented Catholic France from invading England in 1213 and further secured the kingdom from future attacks by foreign countries.
    • John’s aim to retake Normandy came with increasing financial demands and the barons were on the receiving end of such financial exactions.
    • As a result of the king’s treatment of his barons, coupled with the use of his arbitrary powers to unjustly impose taxes and fines, tensions between John and the barons had been growing for several years. 
    • In fact, many of the disaffected barons who came from the north of England began planning a rebellion against the king in 1212. However, they were unsuccessful.
    • John’s final campaign to reclaim Normandy from Philip II commenced in 1214.
    • His hopes were high as he had formed important alliances with various rulers on the continent.
    • Additionally, he had reconciled with the papacy and had raised substantial funds for his ambitious campaign.
    • Philip II, on the other hand, had the support of various French counts and dukes.

    • Although John made significant gains in the early part of the campaign, Philip II ultimately won, crushing the English and Flemish hopes of retaking their lost territories.
    • Returning to England in October 1214, John now had to confront much more widespread unrest as many barons were not pleased with his failure to take back Normandy.
    • When discussions between John and the barons proved inconclusive, civil war broke out in May 1215.
    • John was compelled to begin peace talks with the rebel barons and on 15 June at Runnymede, he accepted the baronial terms embodied in a document known as the Articles of the Barons.
    • The Articles of the Barons became the text from which the draft of the charter was sorted out in the negotiations at Runnymede, forming the basis of the Magna Carta.
    • The final version of the Magna Carta was accepted by the king and the barons on 19 June.
    • The Magna Carta of 1215 was written in Latin and contained 63 clauses, which ensured feudal rights and restated English law.
    • Following the creation and final acceptance of the Magna Carta, the rebel army agreed to stand down and surrender London to John. 
    • However, neither John nor the barons attempted to carry out the 1215 peace accord.
    • The barons were suspicious of John’s adherence to the charter and believed that the king would challenge its legality. They refused to demobilise their forces or surrender London.
    • On the contrary, John appealed to Pope Innocent III for aid in July.
    • The pope obliged, pronounced the Magna Carta “null, and void of all validity for ever”, and had the rebel barons excommunicated.
    • Following the pope’s quashing of the charter, the barons declined to negotiate with the king again. Instead, they formed alliances to defeat the king, leading to the First Barons’ War.
    • The barons later allied with the king of Scotland and invited Philip II’s son, Louis, to take the English throne.
    • This weakened John’s cause. Nevertheless, the king continued to wage war vigorously.
    • With the rebel barons in a dominant position, John began a fresh attack in September 1216. 
    • He attacked eastwards around London to Cambridge and then travelled north to relieve the rebel siege at Lincoln and back east to Lynn.
    • John came down with dysentery, which proved fatal. 
    • Modern historians claim that by October 1216, the war with the barons had reached a stalemate.
    • John’s illness grew worse and upon reaching Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire, he was unable to travel any further.
    • The Angevin king died on the night of 19 October, leaving the issues with the rebel barons undecided.
    • Some of his few remaining supporters were with him. 
    • John’s body was taken for funeral and burial at Worcester Cathedral.
    • His death brought about a peace compromise, leading to  the succession of his son Henry III and the withdrawal of the French prince from England.