Interesting Facts and Stories about King John

Throughout English history, there is only one King John because no king after him took his name. Why would that be? Includes two genealogical tables. Great for family research!

John was considered untrustworthy, with ugly instances of treachery, frivolity and disaster. He was responsible for the loss of the Angevin (a.k.a. Plantagenet) Empire in France. In his youth he was nicknamed John Lackland, and during his reign he got the revealing nickname John Softsword. He taxed and legally controlled his subjects too much. The earliest forms of the legend of Robin Hood emerged out of his reign. He lost continental territories in western and southwestern and northern France. He launched failed campaigns to get back the territories. Badly weakened, he was compelled to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which limited royal authority.

PLANTAGENET ANCESTRY

(Source and added 21 April 2017)

The above table gives a good overview of the entire Plantagenet family. John is on the far right.

W. L. WARREN’S TABLES

He was the “dean” of Plantagenet historians.

WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR AND HIS OFFSPRING

 

Wm Conqueror

HENRY II AND HIS CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN

H2 & Kids

John is on the far right.

Not Shown: Henry’s illegitimate child William, future earl of Salisbury and nicknamed Longsword. We descend from him.

H2 = Henry II

r. = ruled or reigned

d.s.p. = descessit sine prole = deceased without issue

Names in capital letters indicate monarchs in the table and outline.

Bold font indicates direct lineage between us and them.

Angevin = adejctive of Anjou

THE FACTS AND STORIES

  1. From 1154 to 1216 England was ruled by a man from Anjou, France and his two sons: Henry II, King Richard I, and King John.
  2. King Henry II was worried about his waistline.
  3. Through complicated oath-takings, the ruler of Paris, who had the title king, was properly called King of Frenchmen (Rex Francorum), not King of France (Rex Franciae)
  4. In 1167 John was born to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, their last child. Eleanor was forty-five when she bore John; she was full of vigor and boundless energy.
  5. Eleanor was first married to King Louis VII of France in 1137, but the marriage failed probably because she failed to give him a male heir, so important in France. But there’s another reason.
  6. Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, was so taken with Parisian courtly life that she eloped with a married man, Louis’s brother, who was married to the Count of Champagne’s sister.
  7. The Count protested, but Eleanor talked the king into supporting the couple. It came to war, and the King’s mercenaries got out of hand and torched the cathedral at Vitry, where over a thousand women and children were sheltering. They perished.
  8. This led Louis to take the more religious path, and prompted him to go on Crusades, as penance. Eleanor didn’t like his monkish habits, so she was glad to be rid of him.
  9. At six years old, John’s father, H2, arranged a marriage for John and bestowed on him the wedding gift of three castles: Chinon, Loudon, and Mirebeau. These castles were strategically important, for they lay between Anjou and Maine, France, part of H2’s vast empire.
  10. Despite these gifts, John was known in France as Jean sans Terre (“John without Land”) or John Lackland.
  11. John’s older brother, Henry, was the only son of H2 who was popular. He was gallant, politically savvy and militarily skilled; he was tall, handsome, carefree and improvident.
  12. John never grew beyond 5’5” (five feet and five inches).
  13. In 1183 the younger Henry and Richard, both sons of H2, fought briefly for Aquitaine, but younger Henry got dysentery and died on June 11.
  14. Then Geoffrey died on August 19, from an injury during a knightly tournament. Geoffrey left behind a posthumous son, Arthur. When John becomes king, will he accept Arthur?
  15. Only Richard, duke of Aquitaine, and John were left.
  16. In 1185 H2 entrusted John with a campaign in Ireland. Pope Lucius III refused to make John King of Ireland, so he was called Lord of Ireland instead. He was a wastrel. While Richard, his brother, had cowed the powerful barons of southern France, John showed how ineffective he was in Ireland.
  17. H2 and French King Philip II (later called Philip Augustus) fought border skirmishes, with Richard allying himself with Philip. H2 begged his son to join him, but Richard refused.
  18. In January 1189 H2 suffered from a lingering illness. He learned that John was allied with Philip, and H2 died from the shock, but not until he received communion, in a moment of clarity.
  19. H2 died embittered and embattled. He was buried at the abbey church of Fontevraud, near Chinon, France, between Anjou and the county of Poitou, the power base of Aquitaine.
  20. At Richard’s coronation on September 13, 1189, he grew impatient and took the crown from its place on the altar and motion to the archbishop to place it on his head. He was then led to his throne. John had to wait his turn, if he would even get one.
  21. Before Richard left on his Crusade to take Jerusalem back from Saladin, the Muslim sultan, his twenty-two-year old brother John had to be appeased, so he wouldn’t try a coup in Richard’s absence. Formerly known as Lackland, John was titled lord of Ireland. Richard awarded him the Norman title, Count of Mortain, and gave him the earldoms Derby, Nottingham, Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset; castles in the Midlands; and marriage to Isabel of Gloucester, heiress to Bristol, Glamorgan, and Newport. Richard never trusted his younger brother, so he gave him wealth without power, hoping the money would tame his ambitions. Richard made him stay out of England.
  22. During Richard’s absence John allied himself with their half-brother, Geoffrey, illegitimate child of Henry II and a woman named Ykenia, a prostitute;
  23. Richard indicated he wanted Arthur, son of Geoffrey, duke of Brittany, Richard’s brother, (not the half-brother), to succeed him as heir.
  24. Meanwhile, John and half-brother Geoffrey were breaking their oaths and stomped around England and bullied chancellor William Longchamp who was unpopular in England, since he was French and threw his weight around too much. Longchamp took Geoffrey out of the St. Martin’s priory, a sacred place, and John derided Longchamp as a villain. John ruined his career in England, and after a brief stint in prison Longchamp hurried off to Flanders.
  25. As Richard was heading home from the Crusades, he was captured and imprisoned in February 1193 and sold off to Emperor Henry VI, for half the ransom fee.
  26. Meanwhile, John paid homage to Philip II, King of France for the bulk of Plantagenet dominions and agreed to marry Alice, Richard’s spurned wife.
  27. In spring of 1194, Richard returned to England and consolidated his control. John prostrated himself before Richard, who forgave him: “The king lifted up by the hand his natural brother and kissed him, saying, ‘John, have no fear. You are a child, and you have had bad men looking after you. Those who thought to give you bad advice will get their deserts! Get up, and go and eat.’” Maybe Eleanor of Aquitaine brought about the reconciliation.
  28. In conflicts with Philip II along the French dominions, a man fired a bolt from his crossbow and hit Richard in the left shoulder. A surgeon had to be called to get it out. Infection set in, and Richard died of gangrene on April 6, 1199.
  29. Richard’s heart was taken to Rouen, to be interred next to his brother Young Henry. His body was taken to Fontevraud, along with the crown, and buried at his father’s feet, the exact spot where his journey as king had begun.
  30. Who would succeed? Did the son of the Richard’s older brother Geoffrey, Arthur of Brittany, have a better claim to the throne, or did John, the youngest son of H2? William Marshall, the “greatest knight,” decided for John and gradually brought more barons to his side. But John was considered to be untrustworthy because of what he did during his brother Richard’s absence during the Crusades. King Philip of France backed Arthur.
  31. John was crowned king at Westminster Abbey by Hubert Walter, on May 25, 1199.
  32. Arthur and his mother Constance paid homage to John, but then hurried off at night to Philip’s court.
  33. In 1199 Normandy was bankrupted by the demands Richard placed on it. Large-scale mercenaries reduced it to shambles. Brutality: Philip put out the eyes of prisoners, and Richard (when he was alive), then did the same. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, journeying south to seek for Richard in Aquitaine, was warned that at Angers (south of Normandy), that the roads were not safe. Famine and pestilence raved the countryside for years. Apocalyptic preachers gained a ready audience: Anti-Christ had been born in Egypt, and the world was in its death throes.
  34. In May 1200 John and Philip King of France put their seals to the Treaty of Le Goulet, for permanent peace. The treaty implied that John held the Continental lands from the French Crown, at least as John interpreted it. John’s “sluggishness” earned him the nickname “Softsword.”
  35. Arthur kidnapped Eleanor of Aquitaine on July 29, 1202 because now Philip said the Treaty of Le Goulet ordered that John should forfeit his continental possessions. But John captured Arthur and rescued his mother on July 31, a remarkable feat, with the help of William des Roches, on condition that des Roches would have a say in Arthur’s fate. John, however, cut him out of the picture. Arthur’s imprisonment under John was horrible.
  36. William des Roches and another ally raided Anjou and gradually it came under King Philip’s control. John retreated to Normandy.
  37. Early in 1203 John instructed his jailer to blind and castrate Arthur, but the jailer didn’t do it because Arthur cried for mercy. The jailer said he had died. Now attacks on John had moral justification. In spring 1203 John was overrun. Allies were scurrying away.
  38. In Rouen, France, in a drunken rage John killed Arthur and tied his lifeless body to a stone and threw it in the Seine. A fisherman found it later.
  39. Even more allies deserted John, and by the end of 1203 he had lost most of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. He was despised in Brittany. Only a few castles and pockets of loyalists remained.
  40. On April 4, 1204, Eleanor of Aquitaine died, aged eighty. She was buried next to her husband H2 and her favorite son Richard I in the chapel at Fontevraud. Many lords of Aquitaine scrambled to make their peace with ascendant King Philip.
  41. In the summer of 1205, John mobilized an invasion fleet and army. But the barons were reluctant because they didn’t trust his character and didn’t wish to fight for Norman lands and against King Philip.
  42. By 1206, John had bribed and offered money to the English northern magnates, and in April 1206 another expedition set off from England for Poitou. He recovered part of Aquitaine and Gascony, which Alfonso VIII had taken. Philip was raising an army, and in October 1206 they agreed to a two-year truce.
  43. Throughout 1206 to 1210 John focused on his kingdom in England. He got involved in legal matters. In 1207, he levied a thirteenth, a tax of one shilling on every mark (2/3 of a pound) on goods, revenues, and property. He also levied a payment for nobles who inherited to married. They had to pay the king for these privileges. A great magnate could run up a huge debt to the Crown. He was becoming a cruel legalist.
  44. On October 1, 1207, the queen, Isabella of Angoulême, gave birth to a son at Winchester Castle. He was named Henry. It was the first Plantagenet son to be born since John was, forty years earlier.
  45. John was considered cruel because he extended his powers over Scotland, Wales and Ireland; he ruthlessly impoverished and exiled leading families who opposed his rule.
  46. During John’s proposed aborted invasion of Normandy, Huber Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, died. John wanted to appoint his man, John de Gray bishop of Norwich. The chapter of clerics at Canterbury wanted subprior Reginald. Pope Innocent III appointed Cardinal Stephen Langton on June 12, 1207. John flew into a rage, sending furious letters to Rome and threatening embargo to the papacy from his ports, declaring Langton an enemy of the Crown, and taking the see of Canterbury into royal possession.
  47. On March 23, 1208, the pope replied with a papal interdict, which forbade all church services. England fell silent. Only confession, anointing of the dying, and baptism of infants were allowed. Marriages took place in porchways and burials outside walls of the town.
  48. John at first was furious, but calmed down and took church coffers and lands and offices under his control. In January 1209, Pope Innocent III took steps to excommunicate him. By November, the sentence had passed. This tacitly encourage other kings to attack the churchless king. Throughout 1210, silent church bells reminded the ordinary people that they lived in a godless realm.
  49. In 1209-1210, crossing over that Christmas season he attacked the Jews, who ran their businesses under the king’s protection.
  50. The barons and their families, about 160 of them, gradually lost their power and prestige under the heavy hand of a cruel king. He, on the other hand, was desperate to launch a campaign to take Normandy back.
  51. On May 30, 1213, five hundred ships had put out to sea under John’s half-brother William de Longespée or Longsword, earl of Salisbury. They discovered a French fleet harbored at the trading posts of Damme and Sluys. It was being prepared for an invasion of England and unguarded. Longsword destroyed it. This was England’s first great naval victory.
  52. Why the victory? Apparently John had earlier made his peace with Pope Innocent III. It was God’s blessing.
  53. In spring and summer 1214, boosted by the naval victory and the new reconciliation, John one more time decided to invade his lost territory on the coasts of France. He organized an approach from the north, under Otto IV, emperor and nephew, while John would come in at the southern coasts. He had early success, but Otto lost at Bouvines, near Lille, France, against King Philip. And as King Philip’s son Louis approached in the south, John’s allies deserted him. He was beaten. He was forced to sign a five year truce with Philip.
  54. John returned to England discredited.
  55. The earl of Salisbury, William Longsword, was released from prison and made it back to London, to join the rebel cause, because the king resisted the Magna Carta.
  56. On May 14, 1216, the French landed in Kent. The barons based in London had been waiting for him.
  57. However, two months later John secured an annulment and denunciation of the Great Charter from Pope Innocent III.
  58. England was plunged in another civil war. Many barons supported the French King’s son’s cause, Louis.
  59. From June 10-15, the barons laid out forty-nine points in the Articles of the Barons that limited John’s authority to control wardships, inheritances, and widows; scutage payments (the price paid by earls and barons when they couldn’t send knights to the king’s wars). This was the basis of the next great document.
  60. But after much wrangling, forty barons compelled him to sign the Magna Carta or Great Charter, on June 18, 1215 at Runnymede in Berkshire. It limited the king’s power.
  61. John contracted dysentery and died on October 19, 1216. His body was not taken to Fontevraud, where his father, mother, and brother were buried, but to Worcester Cathedral, near the altar of St. Wulfstan.
  62. John’s reputation was wrecked.
  63. He lost the royal domains in France.
  64. He had taxed and controlled his subjects too much.
  65. The earliest forms of the legend of Robin Hood sprang up during his reign.
  66. The Magna Carta would be tied to his name, and from the royal point of view it was a loss.
  67. When it was reissued in 1225, after the new king Henry III, John’s son, reached his majority, it was nailed to church doors and displayed in every town.
  68. No king of England would ever after take the name John.

RELATED POSTS

King Henry II Plantagenet

King Edward Plantagenet I

Eleanor of Aquitaine

William Longsword and Life in the Medieval Age and His American Descendants

Royal gateway ancestors of the Northeast

Royal gateway ancestors of the Middle Colonies

Royal gateway ancestors of Virginia

William Clopton and Our Royal Heritage (royal gateway ancestor)

SOURCES

Ian Crofton, The Kings and Queens of England (New York: Metro Books, 2006).

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (New York: 2014).

Charles Philips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain (New York: Metro Books, 2009).

W. L. Warren, King John, New Edition, (New Haven: Yale U P 1997 [1961, 1978]).

 

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