John: The Worst Ever King of England?

John_of_England_(John_Lackland)

This is my third post about King John, and I just thought that, having written about the 800th anniversary of his signing of the Magna Carta, it could be useful to have a look at the reasons why the barons decided that such a charter was necessary. Was John really that bad…?

King John has the worst reputation of any English king. Other kings were seen as incompetent (Henry II) some as cruel (Richard III) but to his contemporaries, John was seen as both. It is true that most of the sources that condemn his actions were written by monks -and John was no friend of the Church – but his reign was obviously bad enough to lead to one of the most famous documents in history: the Magna Carta.

‘He feared not God, nor respected men.’ (Gerald of Wales)

‘A pillager of his own people.’ (the Barnwell annalist)

Just how true are these quotes?

John’s problems seem to have started on the day he was born…

John was born in Oxford on Christmas Eve, 1167, the last of the four children of King Henry II and the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

John's parents: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, holding court. Anonymous. Public Domain

John’s parents: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, holding court. Anonymous. Public Domain

As such, he lived in the shadow of his older brothers: Henry, Geoffrey and Richard. At an early age he was given the nickname of ‘John Lackland’ because, unlike his elder brothers, he received no land rights in the continental provinces and was never expected to become king.

As a young man, Prince John was notorious for events during his role of Lord of Ireland. He squandered his money and offended Irish lords by mocking their unfashionably long beards. Then, in 1189, he broke his father’s heart by siding in a rebellion against him. On Henry’s death, since his two eldest sons had died by this time, Richard became the next king. All of Henry’s lands went to Richard, thus continuing his nickname of ‘Lackland’.

John was forever in Richard’s shadow. Richard was loved and respected by his subjects and his men, and famous for glorious deeds across the known world.

19th century portrait of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel (oil on canvas). Nor in the Palace of Versalles. Public Domain.

19th century portrait of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel (oil on canvas). Nor in the Palace of Versalles. Public Domain.

John could never compete. Richard even forgave John for rebelling against him and gave him To assure Richard of his newfound loyalty, John went to Évreux in Normandy and took a castle. Unaware of John’s reconciliation with Richard, the garrison thought he was still allied to King Philip of France and accepted him. John massacred them all.

So John already had a reputation for treachery before he became king – a reputation that worsened after Richard I was killed by a crossbow wound in 1199 and John took the throne.

19th century drawing of a scene from 'King John' by Thomas Nast. Folger Shakespearean Library. Commons.

19th century drawing of a scene from ‘King John’ by Thomas Nast. Folger Shakespearean Library. Commons.

His reign started reasonably well, although many incidents soon occurred. War broke out with France again and King Philip supported 16-year-old Arthur of Brittany against John.  As the son of John’s elder brother, Geoffrey, many believed Arthur was the rightful heir.

Chateau de Falaise, where Arthur was imprisoned by John. Uploaded by Ollamh. Commons

Chateau de Falaise, where Arthur was imprisoned by John. Uploaded by Ollamh. Commons

There are sources that suggest that John was responsible for Arthur’s death. Some maintain that John killed him in a drunken rage and dumped his body in the River Seine; others say that Arthur died after being castrated. However the boy died, it is believed to have been at John’s hands.

The Murder of Pronce Arthur by Thomas Welly, 1754. Source: Hulton Archive. Public domain.

The Murder of Prince Arthur by Thomas Welly, 1754. Source: Hulton Archive. Public domain.

John was always at loggerheads with the Church, one incident being particularly noteworthy. This was over John’s protest at Pope Innocent III’s choice of Cardinal Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1208, the pope placed the whole of England under papal interdict. Church services and sacraments were suspended across England (except for baptism and extreme unction). Bodies were buried in woods, ditches, and by the side of the road. Only two bishops remained in England. The following year, the pope excommunicated John from the church.

John raked in money during the interdict, exploiting the weakened Church and amassing the huge sum of over £65,000 (£30 million in modern money). But the interdict also encouraged John’s enemies. King Philip of France planned an invasion in 1213 with papal blessing. As John wanted Rome on his side, he dramatically submitted to Rome and accepted Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. And a surprise attack by English naval forces in May, 1213, ended Philip’s threat.

Coronation of Philip Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England. Uploaded by Jan Arkensteijn. Public Domain

Coronation of Philippe Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England. Uploaded by Jan Arkensteijn. Public Domain

During the interdict, John had been free to impose his dominance over the British Isles. He made the old Scottish king accept costly and humiliating terms. In 1210, he led a force of 800 men to Ireland to quell an open rebellion against him led by powerful lords such as William Marshal, William de Braose and the de Lacy Brothers – who were protesting at John’s financial and political demands for funds in his campaigning in France. The barons submitted or fled. In Wales, Llywellyn the Great also rebelled, but faced with John, he retreated into the hills of Snowdonia and agreed to harsh terms.

Statue of Llywellyn the Great in Conwy. Uploaded by Rhion. Public Domain

Statue of Llywellyn the Great in Conwy. Uploaded by Rhion. Public Domain

The act that one historian described as ‘the greatest mistake John made during his reign’ involved John’s heinous treatment of the family of William de Braose.

The rebellion in Ireland gave John the excuse he needed to go after a personal enemy. De Braose had been John’s right hand man for years. In 1201, John offered him the honour of Limerick in Ireland for 5,000 marks. Six years later, de Braose still owed most of the money.  After the rebellion in 1210, de Braose fled to France, but his lands and his wife, Matilda, and his son were still in Windsor Castle. John moved them to Corfe Castle in Dorset and threw them in the dungeon, where he let them starve to death … perhaps his most notorious and malicious act. One chronicler reports that the bodies were found with the mother slumped across her son, with her head lying on his chest. She had been gnawing at his cheeks for food. Rumours circulated that John had killed them because they knew the truth about Arthur of Brittany’s death. William de Braose had been with John at the time of the boy’s disappearance.

Many of the barons did not feel safe after the de Braose affair. They also had many, accumulated grievances regarding financial burdens, the nature of John’s rule and penalty system and personal grievances about his notorious womanising and taking mistresses – even the wives and daughters of powerful men. The final straw came after John’s long-awaited attack on France ended in defeat and John returned, demanding even more scutage from them…

In 1215 the barons broke homage to John and formed the Army of God and the Holy Church – a declaration of war on the king. They offered the crown of England to Prince Louis of France, King Philip’s son and heir, if they would cross the Channel with an army to help them. On the 17th May, the barons seized the capital of London and drew up their demands in a document originally called the Articles of the Barons.  It was the first draft of what later became known as the Great Charter – the Magna Carta.

John,_Magna_Carta

19th century wood engraving of King John signing the Magna Carta. Public Domain.

By October 1215, after the signing/sealing of the Magna Carta at Runneymede in June – a treaty that John had no intention of keeping – war with the barons resumed. In May 1216, Prince Louis of France invaded with a powerful force in support of the English barons who had wanted him crowned king in place of John. John spent the rest of his reign trying to regain control of his kingdom. At Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in October he fell ill, possibly of dysentery. On October 11th he led his army on a short cut across The Wash at low tide – a disastrous move. Whether due to the returning tide or the quicksand there, his baggage train and treasure were lost beneath the waves. This was the last disaster of a disastrous reign.

John’s health rapidly deteriorated and he headed for Newark Castle on a litter, reportedly ‘moaning and groaning’ that the journey was killing him.

 

On arrival he confessed his sins and received Communion for the last time. He died on the night of 18/19 October in the middle of a great storm.

Drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester athedral from 'History of England'Gy Samuel R. Gardiner. Public Domain

Drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from ‘History of England’ by Samuel R. Gardiner. Public Domain

*Note: The header image shows John of England (John Lackland) by Matthew Paris from his Historia Anglorum, 1250-59. British Library royals MS. Public Domain.

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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37 Responses to John: The Worst Ever King of England?

  1. ane says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Shivangi says:

    It seems King John was quite barbaric. He killed Arthur to usurp the throne. I guess he was the worst king ever.

  3. draliman says:

    That 19th Century drawing makes him look like a real psycho! Guess they captured him perfectly 🙂

  4. Bekki Hill says:

    Very interesting and I agree history does require a healthy bit of scepticism. As they say, it’s written by the winners. 🙂

  5. Millie, you do have a wonderful way of bringing history to life. I remember reading some about Eleanor (it’s been awhile), and she was absolutely fascinating. I also remembered John to be the “bad king” but I guess, in all fairness, many of the kings had power agendas. I believe that Richard the Lionheart’s heart is buried in a French church that I visited (correct me if I am wrong), but didn’t they bury the parts of kings in different places? Great post!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks for liking my post. L.T. The question of just how ‘bad’ John was is an interesting one that is often still debated. As for Richard’s burial, I think you’re right about different parts of his body being buried in different places in France. His heart is at Rouen, his entrails at Chalouse, and the rest buried at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. I can’t say I’ve heard of any other kings being buried this way, but I know that some politically important people, and other European monarchs, were treated like that – heart, entrails and body buried separately. I’ll have to look up about other British kings. You’ve really got me thinking now.

      • Yes, I remember now, it was Rouen where I saw the burial plot for his heart. Such a fascinating history to work with Millie 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        I’m a great history lover, L.T., and not just British history – although I’ve obviously studied that in more detail. I’ve read some amazing fiction set in various places in the world, during many different time periods, and lap them all up. I haven’t been to Rouen but I have been to Orleans, where Jeanne d’Arc was burnt at the stake. There are wonderful historical sites, wherever you travel. 🙂

      • I adore Europe and hope to go back someday. I would love to visit some more wonderful places. I learn a great deal from your posts and really enjoy reading them 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        Thank you! I’ve just hopped ver to your blog to see if I’ve missed any of your posts and, for some reason, I can’t even find the last one I read! Your Home page just lets me read the Welcome post. Is that correct, or am I looking in the wrong place? I can’t find the post on your ‘Books’ or ‘Poems’either. I’d like to catch up on anything I’ve missed … 🙂

      • Hey Millie, I need to see if I can modify my site to be more accessible. I still have the “free” template because, as you mentioned in one of your posts, I came to blogging as a writer and basically started a blog because it is apparently essential if you want to be a writer. I may have to go on board with the paid templates, meanwhile I’ll try to fix it. Thanks so much for reading my blog!

  6. irinadim says:

    Great post, Millie. You’ve explained well why the barons insisted King John should sign the Magna Carta.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you Irina. I like the stories about King John. He may have done some awful things, but he became king at a time when the treasury was empty, so was always short of money. Hence his need to constantly raise taxes. (The treaury was emptied to pay the ransom for Richard when he was captured.) 🙂

  7. Oh wow you explained everything so vividly Millie! I really enjoy each and every bit of this post. I wouldn’t even who King John is and what he did without this post. Good job!!! 😉

    • milliethom says:

      If you’ve ever watched any films about Robin Hood, John comes into those quite a lot. He was still ‘Prince’ John at that time, and Robin Hood’s enemy. I’m glad you found my post of interest. Thank you so much. 🙂

  8. Very interesting post Millie.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you! John was a bit of a rogue, to say the least. He was left financial problems by his brother, Richard, but they can’t account for some of the other things he did.

  9. Aquileana says:

    Intriguing, captivating, twisted!… Such a great post, dear Millie. Thanks so much for sharing it! Best wishes. Aquileana 😀

  10. inesephoto says:

    Wow! Thank you for this fascinating read!

    • milliethom says:

      John was quite a naughty boy, wasn’t he? No wonder he got his wrist slapped by the barons. He did have a hard time financially, though, inheriting an empty treasury from his brother, King Richard. But the murder of his nephew Arthur is a different matter. Thank you for reading my post! 🙂

  11. We once performed Richard III here and after its success tried to do a play on John. But somehow it seemed too difficult to showcase it in limited timeframe.
    How i wish we had you as our script writer ! Be it castles or kings. No one tells history better than you! Kudoz to the humour and and learnings I am taking away from this 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Haha. Well, who knows… one day I might turn my hand to script writing. At the moment I’m desperately trying to get on with the third book of my Viking trilogy. Once I’ve got that on Amazon, I’m not sure what I’ll write. It will definitely be another historical novel. Richard 111 is a fascinating character. He was very badly maligned. It’s now known that the hump on his back was an invention of the Tudor artist who wanted to make him look ugly compared to the ‘handsome’ Tudor monarchs.
      I didn’t realise that you were an actor as well as a poet. How great! Thank you for your amazing praise of me. My face is probably bright red by now. 😀

      • I am sure that day will bring unimaginable joy to me 🙂
        Yes I remember your third book and waiting to read it ^_^
        And oh! That was new information for me ! I recall reading somewhere that he was recently buried again with the respect that Kings deserved. But had no idea about the fake trump! Sometimes I wonder how true is the saying that history is always written by the winner. We would probably never know the complete and unbiased version of truth about our past..
        And yes Millie, I used to do a lot of theatre in my college days. 🙂
        And the praise becomes amazing on its own when it is true 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        There’s always been speculation as to whether Richard rellay did kill the princes in the Tower. There are a lot of historians who now believe he didn’t – and lots of speculation as to who actually did. But, as with King John, we’ll probably never know for sure. But apparently, experts could tell that the ‘hunchback’ on the painitng of Richard was added at a later date. Spin doctors have been busy for hundreds of years!

  12. tedstrutz says:

    Excellent telling.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Ted. John was quite a character – although I’m sure those monks really went to town to make him sound worse than he was. But we’ll never prove that one way or the other. 🙂

  13. Joy Pixley says:

    Very engaging summary of all the reasons why John was, yes, pretty dang bad! My image of John (and his brothers and parents), will always be tainted by their totally fictionalized portrayal in the excellent “The Lion in Winter”. (Which I highly recommend; watching Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole play Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II is an experience everyone should have at least once.)

    Sometimes history is (re)written not only by the victors, but by their playwrights.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Joy! The story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is easily as interesting as that of Richard and John. I’m fascinated bt Eleanor – a woman who really knew waht she wanted, and how to get it. Being imprisoned by her (weaker) husband for all those years, just shows how much he was afraid of her power and influence. I haven’t seen the film, but with those particular actors, can imagine how good it was! You’re right about history being (re)witten by playwrights – and fiction authors! -too. All writers present their characters in a different light, which is fine, since no one will ever know all those characters’ little foibles. But obviously, documented facts, dates and evidence about events just can’t be changed. (You’ll probably know all this anyway, as a history lover. So I’ve likely said all that to myself! haha.) Hope your writing is goin well, Joy.:)

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