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 1191, Richard left England to embark on the Third Crusade. He left John in charge of the country. John’s reputation as a leader had been severely dented as far back as 1185 when Henry II sent him to Ireland to rule. John proved to be a disaster and within six months he was sent home.

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.

John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. This guaranteed the people of England rights that the king could not go back on. In 1216, John tried to go back on the Magna Carta but this only provoked the barons into declaring war on him. By 1216, John was ill. During the war, he suffered from dysentery. He also lost all of his treasure when he tried to take a shortcut across a stretch of water in the Wash, Lincolnshire. As the tide rose faster than he expected, his baggage train was engulfed. Just a few days later, John died and was succeeded by Henry III.

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!

The picture of a monster, put forward by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris must be rejected forever. John had the administrative ability of a great ruler but, from the moment he began to rule, rivals and traitors tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. As he wrestled with one problem, more enemies sprang upon his back. William Stubbs written in 1873.


John had potential for great success. He had intelligence, administrative ability and he was good at planning military campaigns. However, too many personality flaws held him back. R. Turner written in 1994


John was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.Matthew Paris, C13th chronicler

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