John (1167-1216) was king of England from 1199 to 1216. The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was issued during his reign.
Born on Dec. 24, 1167, John was the youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Henry first assigned provinces to his sons, John received no share, hence his nickname "Lackland." He grew up among family feuds, rebellion, and treachery. During his formative years, his mother was his father's prisoner, and his brothers quarreled with their father and among themselves and allied with the most dangerous enemy of their house, the king of France. In 1176 John was betrothed to Isabella, the richly endowed coheiress of the Earl of Gloucester; a year later Henry made him lord of Ireland. John repaid Henry's affection by joining his brother Richard and Philip II of France against him in 1189; his treachery was the final blow to his sick and defeated father.
When Richard the Lion-Hearted became king (1189) and was preparing to go on crusade, he made lavish grants to John in England and made him Count of Mortain, in Normandy, but excluded him from any share in the government. John was ambitious; he tried by every means to obtain power and recognition as Richard's heir, at least in England. He put himself at the head of the opposition to Richard's chancellor, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, and forced him out of the country but failed to bring over the Council of Regency to his treacherous designs. Richard's return resulted in his total discomfiture, but he eventually regained the King's favor and most of his property.
Loss of Normandy
On Richard's death (April 6, 1199) John was accepted in Normandy and England. He was crowned king at Westminster on May 27, Ascension Day. But Anjou, Maine, and Brittany declared for Arthur, son of his older brother Geoffrey, who had died in 1186. Philip of France, as overlord, claimed to have the power to adjudicate matters concerning the French fiefs; in May 1200 at Le Goulet he recognized John as heir to all Richard's lands in return for substantial concessions and an exceptionally large payment as "relief."
Shortly afterward, his first childless marriage having been annulled, John married Isabella, daughter of Adhémar, Count of Angoulême. His position in France was still precarious; Arthur, as a rival claimant, was a focus for rebellion in Anjou and Poitou. In 1201, in the course of a renewed dispute with John, members of the important family of Lusignan appealed against him to the court of King Philip. John dared not appear; his French fiefs were therefore declared to be forfeit, and Philip set out with an army to enforce the sentence. John captured Arthur, who was murdered, possibly by John himself (April 1203), but he could not oppose King Philip's advance. By July 1204 Normandy, which with short intervals had been united to England since 1066, was in the hands of the king of France.
Dispute with the Church
In July 1205 John lost one of his best advisers, Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. As new archbishop, the monks of Canterbury chose first their subprior and then the King's nominee; Pope Innocent III rejected both and arranged the election of the learned Englishman Cardinal Stephen Langton. John declared that his customary rights had been infringed; he refused to admit Langton and seized the property of the monks. The Pope laid an interdict on England from March 24, 1208, and in November 1209 John was declared excommunicate (but not deposed, as is sometimes stated). He responded by seizing the property of the clergy and monks, who had to buy it back, and by keeping abbeys and bishoprics vacant.
Neither interdict nor excommunication seriously disrupted the government of England, but heavy taxes and capricious treatment of certain barons caused an alarming conspiracy against John in 1212, and he learned that the king of France was preparing an invasion. This dangerous situation led him to negotiate with the Pope. By a cunning stroke he turned this formidable opponent into his protector. In May 1213, having agreed to accept Langton, he made over England and Ireland to the Roman Church, to receive them back as fiefs on payment of an annual tribute.
John now prepared a counterattack on King Philip. In 1214, in league with the emperor Otto and Philip's enemies in the Low Countries, he led an army into Poitou and Anjou. He had some success, but Philip's decisive victory over Otto and John's other allies at Bouvines (July 27, 1214) destroyed his hope of recovering Anjou and Normandy. This defeat reacted on his prestige at home, where he had already alienated powerful barons. In January 1215 John received demands for reform and promised to reply after Easter. Meanwhile, both sides gathered their forces, and both complained to the King's overlord, the Pope. But the Pope's attempts at peacemaking, heavily biased in favor of the King, only exacerbated the dispute.
In April 1215 John heard that a large group of barons had met in arms at Brackley and had renounced their fealty; on May 17 they were admitted to London. Negotiations went on for several weeks, but the King was temporarily outmaneuvered and was forced to restore lands and castles to his opponents. At the same time, he made more general promises of new reforms and of the observance of old customs in a comprehensive charter (Magna Carta) dated June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines. The charter as a whole deserves its ancient reputation as a landmark in the struggle to secure government without oppression, efficiency without tyranny. Many of its clauses were designed to control the arbitrary behavior of the King and his officials; many others concerned the administration of justice. Two clauses (39 and 40) were of great importance in later times: the King promised not to act against free men except by judgment of their peers or the law of the land and never to sell, delay, or deny justice.
These promises were mostly unexceptionable and were the result of negotiations in which the King's advisers had hammered out terms with the rebels. Unfortunately, a "security clause" appended to the charter, imposed by the more extreme faction, made it unworkable. John was forced to authorize a committee of 25 barons to enforce the terms, even against himself, and to approve a general oath taking throughout the country in support of the 25. No medieval king could submit to such coercion; John claimed that his oath to observe the charter had been extracted by force and fear, and on these grounds the Pope immediately annulled it.
Compromise was now impossible. Civil war broke out in earnest later in the summer, and the rebels, their temporary military superiority reduced by the skill of the King and the efforts of his supporters, now adopted the aim of the extremists, the substitution of another king. Louis, son and heir of King Philip of France, was invited to claim the throne. Louis arrived in May 1216 and at first had some success, but again John recovered his position with the help of loyal barons and foreign mercenaries. His sudden death at Newark on Oct. 19, 1216, robbed him of victory. He was buried at his own request next to St. Wulfstan in Worcester Cathedral. His death did indeed make the reconciliation of the rebels easier; within a year Louis retired from England, and the country settled down to the long minority of John's young son King Henry III.
Despite its stormy close, John's reign saw important developments in royal administration. There were experiments in methods of taxation and reforms of the Exchequer. The Chancery organized more elaborate and complete records than any contemporary state. The courts of Common Pleas and King's Bench became distinct, and better procedures were evolved for dealing with different types of action. Municipal self-consciousness was stimulated by the grant of royal charters to many towns and by increased trade.
Because of the loss of Normandy, the King and the aristocracy spent more time in England and identified themselves with English life and institutions; thus a long step was taken toward the formation of a unified English people.
Further Reading on John
Excellent for the general reader is W. L. Warren, King John (1961). Sidney Painter, The Reign of King John (1949), was intended as the first part of a large-scale study. J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (1965), supersedes earlier books on that subject. A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (1951; 2d ed. 1955), describes John's reign in England. There is a good short account of John's activities in France by F. M. Powicke in The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6 (1929). John's relations with the Church and the Pope are illustrated in Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, edited and translated by C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (1953).