King John

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: King John’s poor statesmanship was primarily responsible for the downfall of the Angevin Empire and the decreased power of the English monarch, as reflected in the Magna Carta.

Early Life

John was the youngest son of King Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, younger by eleven years than Prince Henry, by nine than Richard “Lion Heart,” by eight than Geoffrey. At five feet, five inches tall, he never measured up to his tall elder brothers. The effigy on his tomb at Worcester Cathedral, carved fifteen years after his death, shows a resemblance to those of Henry II and Richard, but with better defined, bonier features. Unlike their father, John and Richard wore mustaches and trimmed beards; John’s hair covered his ears in the thirteenth century style. No physical description survives from John’s lifetime, but fuller archives than for any previous reign preserve many details of his life-style. Even as a child, he had a reputation for luxury rather than knightly valor; as king, he used sugar and spices, wore a dressing gown (a novelty), collected jewels, and read books.

Prejudice against his enemies and the Angevin technique of ruling through fear do not suffice to explain John’s reputation for malignancy. He may not have murdered his nephew Arthur of Brittany in a drunken rage, but it would have been in character. In 1170, partly because of Henry II’s infidelities, Queen Eleanor withdrew to Aquitaine, her own property, to plot against him with Richard, Geoffrey, and her first husband, King Louis VII of France. Richard, already designated heir of Aquitaine, and Geoffrey, married to the heiress of Brittany, were to gain from Prince Henry’s Continental inheritance. Though involved in these conspiracies, John remained with his father and so gained a reputation for deceit.

Henry II called his youngest son “Lackland,” in reference to his small expectations as the youngest heir, and in 1185 he knighted John and sent him to take control of Ireland. John, however, showed himself a paltry statesman and warrior and alienated both Irish and English chieftains. He cut an even more despicable figure early in Richard’s reign (1189-1199). Their brothers’ deaths and Richard’s childlessness now left the succession in dispute between John and Geoffrey’s son Arthur. Before departing on the Third Crusade, Richard granted extensive properties to John, but he recognized Arthur as heir. John challenged Richard’s regent, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, and plotted with Philip II, “Augustus,” King of France, to establish his own control. He bowed to the strong will of Dowager Queen Eleanor, however, and even paid to ransom Richard, who had been imprisoned in Germany on his way home from the Crusade. During the last half of Richard’s reign, John fought well and loyally for his brother, and on his deathbed, the king recognized John as heir instead of Arthur.

Life’s Work

John’s underlying problem remained the difficulty of controlling by feudal government the Angevin Empire, stretching from Scotland to Spain. His sovereignty over his French territories depended on the whims of innumerable barons, each of whom could decide not to accept John as his feudal lord. Duchess Constance, mother of twelve-year-old Arthur, gained the support of Philip Augustus for her son’s cause. Dowager Queen Eleanor, however, strengthened John’s position by making him Duke of Aquitaine; Richard had served merely as her coregent. English and Norman barons preferred John to a Breton. William des Roches, the most powerful baron of Anjou and commander of Breton forces, went over to John’s side. The Treaty of Le Goulet on May 22, 1200, settled the succession. Philip and Arthur recognized John’s rights, and John accepted Philip as his overlord in France.

The unstable provinces of Maine, Anjou, and Tourraine, connecting Normandy on the north with Aquitaine, proved the weakest link in John’s empire. To the west lay Arthur’s Brittany; to the east, Philip’s home territory. A strong line of fortresses protected the northern frontier, but the lands of Aquitaine continued the fragmented middle zone. To bolster his strength here, in 1201 John married the young Isabelle of Angoulême, who had been betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan. (The pope annulled his first marriage, to Isabelle of Gloucester). The political advantage of the match could only have enhanced John’s passion for the young girl. John soon turned his advantage into liability. Rather than compensate Hugh for his loss, as was the custom, he challenged him (with professional duelists) for plotting against Richard. The Lusignan family responded by leading the barons of the middle zone into revolt. John demonstrated remarkable heroism, rescuing his mother, besieged at Mirebeau, and, assisted by William des Roches, capturing a party of rebel leaders including his cousin...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)