King John was born in 1167 and died in 1216. Like William I, King John is one of the more controversial monarchs of Medieval England and is most associated with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
John was born on Christmas Eve, the youngest son of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. As a child, John tended to be overshadowed by is older brother Richard. Like his father, John developed a reputation for violent rages which lead to him foaming at the mouth. Henry left no land to John when he died so John was given the nick-name John Lackland. In 1189, all of Henry’s territory went to his oldest son, Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart.
In 1192, Richard was imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria as he returned from the Crusades. John tried to seize the crown from his brother but failed. In 1194, when Richard finally returned to England, John was forgiven by his brother.
In 1199, Richard was killed in France and John became the king of England. His reign started in an unfortunate way. In 1202, John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, was murdered. Many in Brittany believed that John was responsible for his murder and they rebelled against John. In 1204, John’s army was defeated in Brittany and John had no choice but to retreat. His military standing among the nobles fell and he was given a new nickname – John Softsword. The defeat in north France was a major blow for John and a costly one. To pay for the defeat, John increased taxes which was not popular with anybody other than John and his treasurers.
John also succeeded in falling out with the pope in 1207. John quarreled with the pope over who should be Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope excommunicated John and put England under a Church law that stated that no christening or marriage would be legal until the time the pope said that they would be. Church law said that only christened people could get to Heaven while children born out of marriage were doomed to Hell. This placed people in England under a terrible strain and they blamed one person for this – John.
In 1213, John had to give in and surrender the spiritual well-being of the whole country to the pope. However, the pope never fully trusted John and in 1214, the pope proclaimed that anybody who tried to overthrow John would be legally entitled to do so. In the same year, John lost another battle to the French at Bouvines. This defeat resulted in England losing all her possessions in France. This was too much for the powerful barons in England. In 1214, they rebelled.
Despite the obvious failings of John, there is still some evidence that he was not as bad as some have tried to make him out to be since his death. It certainly was not uncommon for kings to have their names tarnished when they were not alive to defend themselves!