Childhood & Early Life
John was born to King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, on December 24, 1166, at ‘Beaumont Palace’ in Oxford. John was very young when his mother left for Poitiers and sent John to ‘Fontevrault Abbey,’ where he was assigned a teacher to educate him.
He was later taught by Ranulf de Glanvill, a leading English administrator. He also received training in military and hunting. The youngest and the favorite son of Henry II was jokingly nicknamed “Sanz Terre” or “Lackland” for not acquiring any land for himself due to his low place in the line of succession.
John was Henry II’s favorite child, perhaps because the rest of his brothers, Henry, William, Richard I, and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father between 1173 and 1174. John was the fifth-born child of Henry II.
As he was the last-born child of the royal family, he could not expect inheritance. Slowly, he acquired his father’s raging temper. However, unlike his father, he was more of a cynic.
The “bad king” never trusted anyone and conspired against his own people.
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During his early years, John was not given any substantial land, while his brothers were given control of certain lands. Henry the Young King was crowned as the king of England in 1170.
Henry II betrothed John to Alais, the daughter of Humbert III of Savoy, in order to control the southern borders of Aquitaine. John was only 5 years old during the negotiation. Thus, his father decided to control his son’s lands.
Unfortunately, Alais died before marrying John, and once again, John remained without inheritance. As part of the potential alliance, Henry II had transferred the ownership of the castles of Loudun, Chinon, and Mirebeau to John. However, this decision was not welcomed by Henry the Young King.
Between 1173 and 1174, Henry the Young King, with the support of Eleanor, Louis VII of France, and his brothers, rebelled against his father. John remained on the side of Henry II during the short-lived rebellion.
Henry II defeated his sons and gave them Montlouis as a peace settlement. However, his wife, Eleanor, was imprisoned for supporting a war against her husband.
In 1175, John was given the estates of the late Earl of Cornwall by his father. He was also betrothed to Isabelle of Gloucester.
The couple got married when John turned 21, but they failed to have any children. In 1177, Henry replaced the Lord of Ireland, William FitzAldelm, with John.
John’s first stint as a ruler was not successful, since he, along with his companions, made fun of the chieftains by commenting on their clothes and pulling their beards. This resulted in John being driven out of Ireland. Around this time, problems in his family started growing tremendously.
Richard I was the most eligible candidate for the throne of the king of England after the death of Henry the Young King. Geoffrey also died in 1186, during a tournament, bringing John closer to succession.
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In 1189, Henry II confirmed that Richard I would be his successor. He died soon after the declaration. Richard, the lionhearted, was crowned the new king of England in September 1189.
As he decided to join the ‘Third Crusade,’ Richard I named his nephew, the 4-year-old Arthur of Brittany, the son of Geoffrey, as the heir to his throne. While he was away, John tried to overthrow him from the throne.
Meanwhile, Richard I was captured by the duke of Austria, and a huge amount of ransom had to be collected for his release. John put in a lot of effort to raise the amount.
Richard I was finally released, and upon his return to the kingdom, he decided to forgive John and named him his successor. Richard I died on April 6, 1199.
John became the new king of England and the ruler of the Angevin Empire.
John’s reign lasted from 1199 to 1204 but not without a conflict from his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Arthur, along with Philip II of France, attacked John for the throne.
In the end, John was considered by Philip to be the better choice for a king. However, John had to agree to be Philip’s vassal in Normandy and Angevin.
The war did not end there. Philip gave away all the land taken from John, except Normandy, to Arthur and betrothed him to his daughter, Marie.
Arthur even abducted his grandmother, Eleanor, but was captured by John’s army. In 1202, Arthur died under mysterious circumstances.
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People in Brittany were convinced that he was murdered by John. Two years later, John attacked Brittany but was severely defeated.
John’s marriage to Isabelle of Angoulême also invited a lot of controversy. Isabelle was already betrothed to a French noble, Hugh X of Lusignan, and John’s marriage to her infuriated the French king, Philip Augustus.
Philip ordered John to submit himself in the French courts and explain his action. John, out of arrogance, refused to do so, giving fire to another war between the French and the English forces.
Soon, John had a conflict with Pope Innocent III over the election of the new archbishop of Canterbury after the death of Hubert Walter. The pope excommunicated John and announced that anybody who would overthrow John would be legally entitled to do so.
People blamed John for religious restraints, since no marriage was considered legal until the pope approved. Around 1214, the dispute was settled when John surrendered the Kingdom of England to God and saints Peter and Paul for a feudal service of 1,000 marks every year.
Meanwhile, John lost another battle against France at Bouvines. Philip II played a major role in ruining John’s empire and family conditions, and this time, he took almost everything away from him.
John lost control of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and parts of Poitou, to Philip II. John decided to win Normandy back to ensure the survival of the Angevin Empire.
He decided to charge high taxes and made ruthless financial decisions in order to rebuild his treasury. He also restricted feudal rights of the nobles, which offended the barons.
He formally lost the war to France and returned to England to find that the barons were furious with him. They believed that John was no longer fit to rule the kingdom.
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On June 15, 1215, they sealed the ‘Magna Carta,’ or the “Great Charter,” at Runnymede, near London. John was forced to accept the “Great Charter,” which was to establish a council of 25 barons.
With the support of the pope, John questioned the signing of the ‘Magna Carta’ that reinstated English laws and limited royal powers. The pope agreed that the charter was demeaning, unlawful, and unjust.
This led the barons to begin the first ‘Barons’ War’ against John. Prince Louis VIII of France invaded John’s land after the barons promised him the crown of England.
John’s land and treasure were taken away from him. To avoid the war area of East Anglia, John took refuge in The Wash.
He suffered from dysentery and remained ill until his death. John died on October 18, 1216.
His son, Henry III, was only 9 years old at the time of John’s death. Thus, William Marshal was appointed to take decisions on his behalf. Louis subsequently gave up his throne and signed the ‘Treaty of Lambeth’ in 1217.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1189, John married Isabel of Gloucester but annulled the marriage after they failed to produce any children.
He then married Isabelle of Angoulême on August 24, 1200, after abducting her from her fiancé, Hugh X of Lusignan. The couple had five children, namely, Henry III, Richard, Joan, Isabella, and Eleanor. John also had many illegitimate children.
One of the villains in the famous ‘Robin Hood’ legends was inspired by John. William Shakespeare wrote a play based on John’s life.