I cannot possibly cover the entirety of King John’s reign in this one post, therefore I will cover more personal issues along with issues regarding the succession.
John (December 24, 1166 – October 19, 1216) was King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216. He lost the Duchy of Normandy and most of his other French lands to King Philippe II of France, resulting in the collapse of the Angevin Empire and contributing to the subsequent growth in power of the French Capetian dynasty during the 13th century. The baronial revolt at the end of John’s reign led to the sealing of Magna Carta, a document sometimes considered an early step in the evolution of the constitution of the United Kingdom.
King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine had five sons: William IX, Count of Poitiers, who died before John’s birth; Henry the Young King; Richard I, King of England & Count of Poitiers (Lionheart); Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany; and John.
Nicknamed John Lackland because he was not expected to inherit significant lands, John became King Henry II’s favourite child following his surviving brothers failed revolt of 1173–74. He was appointed the Lord of Ireland in 1177 and given lands in England and on the continent. When Henry II died in 1189, having been predeceased by Henry the Young King and Geoffrey of Brittany, Richard became king with Geoffrey’s son, Arthur, as heir presumptive.
King John of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine
John grew up to be around 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m) tall, relatively short, with a “powerful, barrel-chested body” and dark red hair; he looked to contemporaries like an inhabitant of Poitou. John enjoyed reading and, unusual for the period, built up a travelling library of books. He enjoyed gambling, in particular at backgammon, and was an enthusiastic hunter, even by medieval standards. He liked music, although not songs. John would become a “connoisseur of jewels”, building up a large collection, and became famous for his opulent clothes and also, according to French chroniclers, for his fondness for bad wine. As John grew up, he became known for sometimes being “genial, witty, generous and hospitable”; at other moments, he could be jealous, over-sensitive and prone to fits of rage, “biting and gnawing his fingers” in anger.
Isabella, Countess of Gloucester (c. 1173 – October 14, 1217). Isabella was the daughter of William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester, and his wife Hawise de Beaumont. Her paternal grandfather, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, was the illegitimate son of King Henry I. Her father died in 1183, at which time she became Countess of Gloucester suo jure.
On September 28, 1176, King Henry II betrothed Isabella to his youngest son, John Lacklannd. John and Isabella were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. But in the marriage agreement, the King agreed to find the best husband possible for Isabella should the Pope refuse to grant a dispensation for the marriage. Henry also declared Isabella the sole heir to Gloucester, disinheriting her two sisters.
On August 29, 1189, John and Isabella were married at Marlborough Castle in Wiltshire, and John assumed the Earldom of Gloucester in her right. Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage null by reason of consanguinity and placed their lands under interdict. The interdict was lifted by Pope Clement III. The Pope granted a dispensation to marry but forbade the couple from having sexual relations.
After John became king he sought an annulment in order to marry Isabella of Angoulême. The annulment was granted on the grounds of consanguinity, by the bishops of Lisieux, Bayeux, and Avranches, sitting in Normandy. John, however, kept her lands, and Isabella did not contest the annulment.
Philippe II, King of France.
After King Richard I’s death on April 6, 1199 there were two potential claimants to the Angevin throne: John, whose claim rested on being the sole surviving son of Henry II, and young Arthur I, Duke of Brittany, who held a claim as the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey. Richard appears to have started to recognise John as his heir presumptive in the final years before his death, but the matter was not clear-cut and medieval law gave little guidance as to how the competing claims should be decided. With Norman law favouring John as the only surviving son of Henry II and Angevin law favouring Arthur as the only son of Henry’s elder son, the matter rapidly became an open conflict. John was supported by the bulk of the English and Norman nobility and was crowned at Westminster Abbey, backed by his mother, Eleanor. Arthur was supported by the majority of the Breton, Maine and Anjou nobles and received the support of Philippe II, who remained committed to breaking up the Angevin territories on the continent. With Arthur’s army pressing up the Loire valley towards Angers and Philippe II’s forces moving down the valley towards Tours, John’s continental empire was in danger of being cut in two.
John and Philippe II negotiated the May 1200 Treaty of Le Goulet; by this treaty, Philippe recognised John as the rightful heir to Richard in respect to his French possessions, temporarily abandoning the wider claims of his client, Arthur. John, in turn, abandoned Richard’s former policy of containing Philippe through alliances with Flanders and Boulogne, and accepted Philippe’s right as the legitimate feudal overlord of John’s lands in France. John’s policy earned him the disrespectful title of “John Softsword” from some English chroniclers, who contrasted his behaviour with his more aggressive brother, Richard.
Isabella of Angoulême, Queen Consort of England and Lady of Ireland.
Isabella of Angoulême (c. 1186/1188 – June 4, 1246) was queen consort of England as the second wife of King John from 1200 until John’s death in 1216. She was also suo jure Countess of Angoulême from 1202 until 1246.
Isabella was the only daughter and heir of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angoulême, by Alice of Courtenay, who was sister of Peter II of Courtenay, Latin Emperor of Constantinople and granddaughter of King Louis VI of France.
Isabella became Countess of Angoulême in her own right on June 26, 1202, by which time she was already Queen of England. Her marriage to King John took place on August 24, 1200 in Angoulême, a year after he annulled his first marriage to Isabel of Gloucester. She was crowned queen in an elaborate ceremony on October 8, at Westminster Abbey in London. Isabella was originally betrothed to Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, son of the Count of La Marche. As a result of John’s temerity in taking her as his second wife, King Philippe II of France confiscated all of their French lands, and armed conflict ensued.
At the time of her marriage to John, the blonde-haired blue-eyed Isabella was already renowned by some for her beauty and has sometimes been called the Helen of the Middle Ages by historians. Isabella was much younger than her husband and possessed a volatile temper similar to his own. King John was infatuated with his young, beautiful wife; however, his acquisition of her had at least as much to do with splitting his enemies between one another as romantic love.
She was already engaged to Hugh IX le Brun when she was taken by John. It was said that he neglected his state affairs to spend time with Isabella, often remaining in bed with her until noon. However, these were rumors spread by John’s enemies to discredit him as a weak and grossly irresponsible ruler, given that at the time John was engaging in a desperate war against King Philippe II of France to hold on to the remaining Plantagenet duchies. The common people began to term her a “siren” or “Messalina”, which spoke volumes as to popular opinion. Her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, readily accepted her as John’s wife.
John’s personal life greatly affected his reign. Contemporary chroniclers state that John was sinfully lustful and lacking in piety. John’s lack of religious conviction has been noted by contemporary chroniclers and later historians, with some suspecting that John was at best impious, or even atheistic, a very serious issue at the time.
It was common for kings and nobles of the period to keep mistresses, but chroniclers complained that John’s mistresses were married noblewomen, which was considered unacceptable. John had at least five children with mistresses during his first marriage to Isabella of Gloucester, and two of those mistresses are known to have been noblewomen. John’s behaviour after his second marriage to Isabella of Angoulême is less clear, however.
None of John’s known illegitimate children were born after he remarried, and there is no actual documentary proof of adultery after that point, although John certainly had female friends amongst the court throughout the period. The specific accusations made against John during the baronial revolts are now generally considered to have been invented for the purposes of justifying the revolt; nonetheless, most of John’s contemporaries seem to have held a poor opinion of his sexual behaviour.
The character of John’s relationship with his second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, is unclear. John married Isabella whilst she was relatively young – her exact date of birth is uncertain, and estimates place her between at most 15 and more probably towards nine years old at the time of her marriage. Even by the standards of the time, Isabella was married whilst very young. King John was 34 at the time of his marriage.
On October 1, 1207 at Winchester Castle, Isabella gave birth to a son and heir, named Henry after the King’s father, Henry II. If Isabella was 9 at the time of her marriage to King John, then she would have been 15 at the time she gave birth to the future Henry III. If Isabella was 15 at the time of her marriage, then she would have been 22 at the birth of her son.
Young Prince Henry was quickly followed by another son, Richard, and three daughters, Joan, Isabella, and Eleanor. All five children survived into adulthood and made illustrious marriages; all but Joan produced offspring of their own.
John did not provide a great deal of money for his wife’s household and did not pass on much of the revenue from her lands, to the extent that historian Nicholas Vincent has described him as being “downright mean” towards Isabella. Vincent concluded that the marriage was not a particularly “amicable” one. Other aspects of their marriage suggest a closer, more positive relationship. Chroniclers recorded that John had a “mad infatuation” with Isabella, and certainly John had conjugal relationships with Isabella between at least 1207 and 1215; they had five children. In contrast to Vincent, historian William Chester Jordan concludes that the pair were a “companionable couple” who had a successful marriage by the standards of the day.
In September 1216, John began a fresh, vigorous attack against the rebellious Barons. He marched from the Cotswolds, feigned an offensive to relieve the besieged Windsor Castle, and attacked eastwards around London to Cambridge to separate the rebel-held areas of Lincolnshire and East Anglia. From there he travelled north to relieve the rebel siege at Lincoln and back east to King’s Lynn, probably to order further supplies from the continent.
In King’s Lynn, John contracted dysentery, which would ultimately prove fatal. Meanwhile, King Alexander II of Scotland invaded northern England again, taking Carlisle in August and then marching south to give homage to Prince Louis (future Louis VIII) for his English possessions; John narrowly missed intercepting Alexander along the way. Tensions between Louis and the English barons began to increase, prompting a wave of desertions, including William Marshal’s son William and William Longespée, who both returned to John’s faction.
King Louis VIII the Lion invaded southern England and was proclaimed “King of England” by rebellious barons in London on June 2, 1216 a few months before the death of King John. Tensions between Louis VIII and the English barons began to increase, prompting a wave of desertions, including William Marshal’s son William and William Longespée, who both returned to John’s faction. Louis VIII was never crowned as king of England, however, and renounced his claim after being excommunicated and repelled by English forces.
The king returned west but is said to have lost a significant part of his baggage train along the way. Roger of Wendover provides the most graphic account of this, suggesting that the king’s belongings, including the Crown Jewels, were lost as he crossed one of the tidal estuaries which empties into the Wash, being sucked in by quicksand and whirlpools. Accounts of the incident vary considerably between the various chroniclers and the exact location of the incident has never been confirmed; the losses may have involved only a few of his pack-horse. Modern historians assert that by October 1216 John faced a “stalemate”, “a military situation uncompromised by defeat.”
John’s illness grew worse and by the time he reached Newark Castle he was unable to travel any farther; John died on the night of 18/19 October. Numerous – probably fictitious – accounts circulated soon after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums or a “surfeit of peachees.” His body was escorted south by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral in front of the altar of St Wulfstan. A new sarcophagus with an effigy was made for him in 1232, in which his remains now rest.
With the death of King John he was succeeded by his 9 year old son as King Henry III of England, Lord of Ireland. On his deathbed, John had appointed a council of thirteen executors to help Henry reclaim the kingdom. The dying King John further requested that his son be placed into the guardianship of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights in England. The loyalist leaders decided to crown Henry immediately to reinforce his claim to the throne.