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John - 1199-1216

Key Facts about John

John's reputation as an inept King who lost many of his father's possessions in France and the royal war chest and treasure in The Wash, Norfolk, is not entirely merited. While his brother Richard was abroad during most of his reign, John administered the affairs of England, and opposed Church pressure on English society.

His quarrels with the Church had a chequered history, dating from 1206 when he refused to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1209 the Pope excommunicated the King, after banning all church services except baptism. He also declared that John had no right to the English crown.

Under pressure from the power of Rome John gave way, and was later rewarded by being relieved by the Pontiff of the obligations of the Magna Carta. The signing of the Magna Carta, a document limiting royal power, marked a crisis point between John and the barons. They had never been happy with Norman control, and had obliged John to sign at Runnymede, on the Thames near Windsor, on 15 June, 1215.

Despite these mishaps, history has shown that John was a King who continued the work of his predecessors. He extended the network of castles which secured peace for a country that was growing in strength and prosperity.

However, John's reputation has been up against that of two warrior heroes, his own brother, Richard I, and that of Robin Hood, a legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest. Robin was supposedly loyal to Richard, and stole from the rich to give to the poor. Against such charismatic figures John fades into insignificance.

For centuries all historians agreed that King John was bad. Not just incompetent, but spectacularly awful as a human being as well as a king. His upbringing didn't help. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was forty-five when she had him - the last of her eight children. He cannot have been particularly welcome, and his parents became more than estranged shortly after his birth, his mother being virtually under house arrest. His older brothers treated him with contempt.

There was no territory left to give John, so he gained the curious nickname 'Lackland'. In fact, the only way he could gain any wealth was by making a shamelessly loveless marriage to a rich heiress. Later on, when he was king, he fell desperately in love with a twelve-year-old, Isabella of Angouleme, and ditched his first wife without a qualm. Isabella gave him five children. He also had five bastards by various other women. (He sent a poisoned egg to one woman who turned him down.)

Richard I, his brother, was almost always out of England during his reign, so in his absence John was constantly interfering and helping himself to whatever he could. However, when Richard was dying he made John his successor, despite the fact that a young nephew, Arthur, was closer in line to the throne. John seized the first opportunity he could to imprison the sixteen-year-old Arthur. It was alleged that he murdered him personally, tying a stone to his body and throwing the corpse into the River Seine. Whatever the details were, Arthur certainly disappeared in sinister circumstances. One nobleman's wife was starved to death in Windsor Castle's dungeon for daring to suggest that John was responsible.

Wars with France lost John much of his territory in France: Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Maine, Touraine. It was the beginning of the inevitable separation of the two countries.

The barons, in despair, invited Louis Capet, son of King Philip II of France, to come and take over as king. Louis arrived with an army and settled into London and Winchester. In essence there was civil war, aggravated by an invasion by the Scots deep into England. John did have a kind of grudging backing from the bishops, because of the Pope's support. However, he could find nobody to fight for him and had to import foreign mercenaries.

Travelling with all his treasure, not trusting to leave it anywhere out of sight, John's luck finally ran out. He happened to be moving his wagon-train of bullion and jewellery too near the sea in Norfolk, and when the tide came in quickly he lost wagon-load upon wagon-load of valuables in the soggy marshes. He lost not only the crown of Edward the Confessor, the Empress Matilda's crown, the orb and sceptre, and all the jewellery of his mother, who had been the richest woman in the world, but also gold cups, chalices, crosses, unset jewels - all the wealth that effectively enabled him to pay those foreign mercenary soldiers. The loss of this treasure meant that he was rendered powerless.

Within days John was dead, probably poisoned. The corpse was taken to Worcester Cathedral and buried before the high altar, on John's own wishes, so that he could be near his favourite saint, St Wulfstan.

Such is the story of John. But nowadays it is recognised that he has always had an extremely bad press, perhaps unfairly so. The early historians were monks who were still rankled by his differences with the Church. In fact, nowadays we can appreciate that John did at least try to grapple with the many problems that beset the country, unlike Stephen or his older brother, Richard I, who simply ignored them. Looking afresh at his reign, we can realise that he built up England's navy and sea defences; he was an able administrator; he travelled incessantly to supervise the performance of his officials; and he tried to ensure a healthy economy. Possibly the most important thing he lacked was luck. Modern historians are far less condemning of John than those of former centuries. But it will be a long time before he loses his image of the archetypal Bad King.

Key Events during the Reign of John

1199 - John accedes ro the throne on the death of Richard.

1204 - England loses almost all its possessions in France.

1206 - John refuses to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.

1208 - Pope Innocent III issues an Interdict against England, banning all church services except for baptisms and funerals.

1209 - Pope Innocent III excommunicates John for his confiscation of ecclesiastical property.

1212 - Innocent III declares that John is no longer the rightful King of England.

1214 - Philip Augustus of France defeats the English army at the Battle of Bouvines.

1215 - John is compelled by his barons and prelates to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede.

1216 - The barons seek French aid in their fight against John; Prince Louis of France captures the Tower of London.

1216 - John dies unexpectedly at Newark of a fever.

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