John (December 2504, 1166 – October 19, 1216) was King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216.
John was the youngest of the four surviving sons of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was nicknamed John Lackland because he was not expected to inherit significant lands.
John 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 considered an early step in the evolution of the constitution of the United Kingdom.
John held a council in London in January 1215 to discuss potential reforms and sponsored discussions in Oxford between his agents and the rebels during the spring. He appears to have been playing for time until Pope Innocent III could send letters giving him explicit papal support.
This was particularly important for John, as a way of pressuring the barons but also as a way of controlling Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the meantime, John began to recruit fresh mercenary forces from Poitou, although some were later sent back to avoid giving the impression that John was escalating the conflict. The King announced his intent to become a crusader, a move which gave him additional political protection under church law.
Letters of support from the Pope arrived in April but by then the rebel barons had organised. They congregated at Northampton in May and renounced their feudal ties to John, appointing Robert fitz Walter as their military leader. This self-proclaimed “Army of God” marched on London, taking the capital as well as Lincoln and Exeter. John’s efforts to appear moderate and conciliatory had been largely successful, but once the rebels held London they attracted a fresh wave of defectors from John’s royalist faction. John instructed Langton to organise peace talks with the rebel barons.
John met the rebel leaders at Runnymede, near Windsor Castle, on June 15, 1215. Langton’s efforts at mediation created a charter capturing the proposed peace agreement; it was later renamed Magna Carta, or “Great Charter”.
The charter went beyond simply addressing specific baronial complaints, and formed a wider proposal for political reform, albeit one focusing on the rights of free men, not serfs and unfree labour. It promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation only with baronial consent and limitations on scutage and other feudal payments. A council of twenty-five barons would be created to monitor and ensure John’s future adherence to the charter, whilst the rebel army would stand down and London would be surrendered to the King.
Neither John nor the rebel barons seriously attempted to implement the peace accord. The rebel barons suspected that the proposed baronial council would be unacceptable to John and that he would challenge the legality of the charter; they packed the baronial council with their own hardliners and refused to demobilise their forces or surrender London as agreed.
Despite his promises to the contrary, John appealed to Pope Innocent III for help, observing that the charter compromised the Pope’s rights under the 1213 agreement that had appointed him John’s feudal lord. Innocent obliged; he declared the charter “not only shameful and demeaning, but illegal and unjust” and excommunicated the rebel barons. The failure of the agreement led rapidly to the First Barons’ War.