Without question, King John is one of the most famous kings in the history of England. A multitude of factors contributes to his infamy, ranging from his hot-headed temperament to his diplomatic failures as king. This article below discusses 6 of the key events during King John’s reign.
1. The Death of Arthur I, Duke of Brittany, and King John’s Ascension (c. 1203)
Nothing sets a bad precedent for a king’s reign quite like a claimant to the throne dying under suspicious circumstances! To put the whole story into context, we first need to take a look at John’s family history. His father was King Henry II (r. 1154-89), the first Plantagenet monarch of England. John was the youngest of Henry’s eight legitimate children: his oldest brother, William, had died in infancy, while the next brother, also called Henry, died before Henry II did — leaving Henry II’s third son, Richard to become king. Richard was crowned as King Richard I of England when Henry II died and reigned until his death in 1199.
As Richard had died without any legitimate heirs, the throne would have passed to the next brother in line, Geoffrey, but he had died in 1186. As a result, the throne passed to the youngest of all King Henry II’s children, John.
However, there was still another claimant to the throne in the form of John’s fifteen-year-old nephew, Arthur. Geoffrey had left behind a son, who was also the Duke of Brittany. Many people at the time felt that Arthur had a better claim to the throne than John, being the son of an older brother, rather than the “wicked uncle”.
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With support, Arthur had organized a rebellion, which ended in failure. The young Duke was imprisoned and was never heard from again. The likely end that Arthur came to was that he was murdered — although whether or not this was on John’s orders will never be known. Even so, Arthur’s disappearance and death ensured that John’s early reign was full of suspicion that shrouded the king in mystery.
2. The Loss of Normandy (1203)
Under King Henry II, the Plantagenet Empire stretched from Scotland to France — largely thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who was also John’s mother). As a young child, John and his brother Richard had grown up on the Continent and were familiar with French customs. Normandy was a key part of Plantagenet territory on the Continent. It was strategically important: it was coastal, and a good area to supply English troops in France with food, weapons, and more.
In early December 1203, King Philip II of France invaded Normandy, and by the 6th of December, he had conquered it. Throughout the whole conflict, King John did not stay and fight — instead, he returned to England on a ship that arrived at Portsmouth. This was deemed as cowardice and made King John even more unpopular than he already was.
However, the loss of Normandy was not entirely King John’s fault: both of his predecessors (King Henry II and King Richard I) had left England for long periods of time in their reigns — in fact, Richard only spent six months of his ten-year reign in England — and Normandy had still survived. It was as much a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for King John, rather than him being solely responsible for the loss of Plantagenet territory in France.
3. Excommunication from the Catholic Church (1209)
King John was not the easiest of characters to get on with, whether that be from a familial perspective, or a diplomatic one, or in this case, a religious one. In 1205, John clashed with Pope Innocent III on an issue regarding a disputed election over the See of Canterbury. Things had gone from bad to worse for King John, and just three years later, Innocent laid an interdict on England and Wales.
The terms of this interdict meant that all church services were to be suspended for six years. In an age when there was no other option but religion, which huge impact religion had on people’s lives, this was more than a shock to the system to the English people. And who was the man they blamed? King John. However, historian David Starkey has stated that it was more of a “clerical strike, in which the clergy refused to say mass, bury corpses, or marry couples”.
Regardless of this, papal relations soured even further, and a year later, in 1209, Pope Innocent III excommunicated King John. John seems to have remain unfazed by this excommunication, because he had already confiscated the Church’s estates which had somewhat eased his financial problems. However, it was just another three years before John was once again begging forgiveness from the Church.
4. The Submission to the Papacy (1212)
In 1212, King Philip II of France planned to cross the English Channel and formally declare war on England. At the same time, he faced a baronial rebellion on his own doorstep, which made him finally realize how vulnerable he was without any papal support.
He appealed to Innocent III for help and ultimately agreed to make peace with the Pope. In return, Innocent agreed to re-communicate John, but not at a cheap cost: John had to surrender his kingdom to the Pope and would receive it back from him as a feudal dependency. On top of this, King John had also promised an annual sum of 1000 marks to Innocent III and his successors in perpetuity. Once more, King John showed that he was a weak ruler and leader — and this did not go unnoticed by contemporaries and historians alike. The fourteenth-century chronicler, Henry Knighton, wrote that King John had “turned himself from a free man into a slave” because of his submission to the Papacy. Worse, Philip II’s threat of invasion was not just mere words — war fever was rife on the Continent, and this was one conflict that King John could not back down from.
5. The Battle of Bouvines (1214)
Bouvines was one of the greatest pitched battles of the Middle Ages, and also the concluding battle of the Anglo-French War of 1213-14. The battle came about through a European coalition formed against King Philip II of France, and, in addition to King John of England, Philip faced opponents such as Otto IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Count William I of Holland.
The battle itself took place on July 27th, 1214 in Bouvines, near Flanders, in modern-day northern France. The French were the victors in the conflict, despite having a smaller army than the Allied forces. In fact, this was one of the Allies’ main downfalls: the size of their army meant that they were slow to deploy, whereas the French forces (who also had better discipline and no language barriers) could conduct quick and frequent attacks through the Allied columns.
At one point, King Philip II had been unhorsed but luck was on the French side: their forces managed to overwhelm the Allies and claim the final victory. Naturally, this was devastating for England and King John. He had lost a key battle, meaning he had gifted Philip even more territory. Otto IV was deposed by Pope Innocent III, while John had to give up Anjou to Philip — the ancient patrimony of the Plantagenet kings of England (they were also known as the Angevin kings of England because they were from Anjou). King John was in the most vulnerable position he had been in during his entire reign. And for him, it was only going to get worse.
6. King John Signs the Magna Carta (1215)
Following his humiliating defeat by Philip II, John returned home angry and demanded scutage (money paid in lieu of military service) from his barons. Stephen Langton, who had been named Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Innocent III, managed to stir up baronial unrest and led a revolt against King John.
When negotiations of a treaty had came to a halt in 1215, civil war broke out. The rebels, led by a baron called Robert Fitzwalter, gained control of London, and captured King John at a place called Runnymede, near Windsor.
He was forced to sign he rebels’ concessions, and on 15 June 1215, he signed the agreement known as the Articles of the Barons. Just four days later, after several revisions, King John and the barons formally submitted the document known as the Magna Carta.
However, John appealed to Pope Innocent III, claiming that he had been forced to sign what was deemed a peace treaty at the time. Remarkably, the Pope believed him. This was too much for the barons to handle, and civil war broke out once more.
Meanwhile, Prince Louis (who would become the future King Louis VIII of France), the son and heir of King Philip II, had set sail for England, and arrived on English shores in May 1216. Many common people began to refer to Louis as King Louis of England, which was enough to scare King John into submission and finally sign the Magna Carta, ceding much of his power to the barons in the process.
In October of the same year, King John died. “Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler with the presence of John” this was the view of the thirteenth century chronicler Matthew Paris on King John’s death. Thus came the end one of the most infamous reigns in English history.