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King John of England

A Concise Biography


Portrait of King John of England from Cassell's History of England, c. 1902.

Portrait of King John of England from Cassell's History of England, c. 1902.

Public Domain

Known as John Lackland (in French, Jean sans Terre), also count of Mortain, King John was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the younger brother of Richard I. During his reign, he was forced to accept the Magna Carta and lost most of England's possessions in France.

John was Henry's favorite son, though Henry was not able to bestow on him the lands he had hoped; this is where John's nickname of "Lackland" originated. Nevertheless he was given the lordship of Ireland and the succession to the earldom of Gloucester. In 1185 John visited Ireland for several months and earned a reputation for recklessness and irresponsibility, which appeared to do nothing to lessen his father's affections.

In June of 1189, Richard rebelled against Henry (motivated in part, no doubt, by Henry's favoritism toward John). For reasons that remain less than clear, John joined Richard's rebellion. A month later Richard became king. John was made count of Mortain, confirmed as lord of Ireland, and married Isabella, heiress to Gloucester, in return for promising to stay out of England while Richard was away on crusade.

John did not keep his promise. When Richard named their nephew Arthur (son of their late brother Geoffrey) as his heir, John returned to England. When word of Richard's capture by Emperor Henry VI reached him, John joined forces with King Philip II of France and tried to take control of the country. Upon Richard's return in 1194, John was banished and all his lands were taken from him. In May of that year he reconciled with his brother and recovered some of his lands. However, only after Arthur fell into Philip's hands and Richard was forced to recognize John as his heir did John reacquire all his holdings.

Shortly after Richard's death, John was invested as duke of Normandy, and in May he was crowned King of England. However, Arthur, with Philip's support, was recognized as Richard's heir in Anjou and Maine. A year later John signed the Treaty of Le Goulet, and, in return for some funds and for ceding some territory to Philip, John was recognized as the rightful successor to all Richard's French holdings.

In 1199 John had his marriage to Isabella dissolved on the grounds of consanguinity. Then, after intervening in the politics of Poitou and attempting to settle a problem between the rival families of Lusignan and Angoulême, he married another Isabella, the heiress to Angoulême, who up to that point had been betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan. The following year the Lusignans, very likely provoked by John's marriage, rebelled and appealed to Philip. King Philip ordered John to appear before him, but John refused and a war ensued. John saw success at Mirebeau and captured his nephew, Arthur, but lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and parts of Poitou to the French king.

With virtually all of his French holdings gone, John was forced to stay in England, where his prestige had dropped due to the loss of lands. In an attempt to make up for his reduced revenue, he cracked down on finances, taxing revenues, taxing the Jews, conducting investigations into the royal forests and feudal tenures, and exploiting his prerogatives, all of which would later serve as the basis for the charges of tyranny brought against him.

The death of Hubert Walter, chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, opened the way for John to promote members of his household to important offices. It also precipitated trouble with the Church. Pope Innocent III rejected John's nominee for Walter's replacement as archbishop and effected the election of Stephen Langton instead. John refused to accept Langton, so Innocent excommunicated him and put an interdict on England.

The split continued for five years, during which time John accumulated more than £100,000 from the revenues of vacant or appropriated clerical offices. But, though the rift was monetarily advantageous, it threatened John's plans to recover his lands in Europe as well as damaging his prestige at home. In November of 1212 John agreed to accept Langton and the Pope's terms. He surrendered his kingdom to the papal nuncio and received it back as a vassal, rendering an annual tribute of 1,000 marks. In the summer of 1213, Langton absolved John from excommunication, and in 1214 the interdict on England was lifted.

John's reconciliation with Innocent secured the papacy as an ally in his conflict with Philip, but his treatment of the Church angered monastic chroniclers, who charged him with sacrilege in their writings as well as tyranny and cruelty. His planned invasion of France resulted in no decisive victories, and John was compelled to accept a truce that lasted until after his death.

On the heels of this second poor outcome in France, John's return to England was not a happy one. The barons, never particularly fond of John, had grown more discontent, and in 1215 civil war broke out. When London went over to the rebels, John was forced to negotiate, and on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, he accepted the terms in the document known as the Articles of the Barons. This document was further revised over the next few days, until both John and the barons accepted the provisions embodied within it, and it became known as the Magna Carta (the great charter).

John almost immediately appealed against the charter to the pope, who took the king's side, and yet another civil war ensued. John captured Rochester castle and devastated the northern counties and the Scottish border lands. But Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII), at the barons' request, invaded England. John fought on until he died in October, 1216. His death paved the way for peace; the rebels were restored, John's son Henry was assured the succession, and Louis withdrew his forces.

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