John was born to Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine on 24 December 1166. Henry had inherited significant territories along the Atlantic seaboard—Anjou, Normandy and England—and expanded his empire by conquering Brittany. Henry married the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, who reigned over the Duchy of Aquitaine and had a tenuous claim to Toulouse and Auvergne in southern France, in addition to being the former wife of Louis VII of France. The result was the Angevin Empire, named after Henry’s paternal title as Count of Anjou and, more specifically, its seat in Angers. The Empire, however, was inherently fragile: although all the lands owed allegiance to Henry, the disparate parts each had their own histories, traditions and governance structures. As one moved south through Anjou and Aquitaine, the extent of Henry’s power in the provinces diminished considerably, scarcely resembling the modern concept of an empire at all. Some of the traditional ties between parts of the empire such as Normandy and England were slowly dissolving over time. It was unclear what would happen to the empire on Henry’s death. Although the custom of primogeniture, under which an eldest son would inherit all his father’s lands, was slowly becoming more widespread across Europe, it was less popular amongst the Norman kings of England. Most believed that Henry would divide the empire, giving each son a substantial portion, and hoping that his children would continue to work together as allies after his death. To complicate matters, much of the Angevin empire was held by Henry only as a vassal of the King of France of the rival line of the House of Capet. Henry had often allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor against France, making the feudal relationship even more challenging.
Shortly after his birth, John was passed from Eleanor into the care of a wet nurse, a traditional practice for medieval noble families. Eleanor then left for Poitiers, the capital of Aquitaine, and sent John and his sister Joan north to Fontevrault Abbey. This may have been done with the aim of steering her youngest son, with no obvious inheritance, towards a future ecclesiastical career. Eleanor spent the next few years conspiring against her husband Henry and neither parent played a part in John’s very early life. John was probably, like his brothers, assigned a magister whilst he was at Fontevrault, a teacher charged with his early education and with managing the servants of his immediate household; John was later taught by Ranulph Glanville, a leading English administrator. John spent some time as a member of the household of his eldest living brother Henry the Young King, where he probably received instruction in hunting and military skills.
John grew up to be around 5 ft 5 in (1.68 m) tall, relatively short, with a “powerful, barrel-chested body” and dark red hair; he looked to contemporaries like an inhabitant of Poitou. John enjoyed reading and, unusually for the period, built up a travelling library of books. He enjoyed gambling, in particular at backgammon, and was an enthusiastic hunter, even by medieval standards. He liked music, although not songs. John would become a “connoisseur of jewels”, building up a large collection, and became famous for his opulent clothes and also, according to French chroniclers, for his fondness for bad wine. As John grew up, he became known for sometimes being “genial, witty, generous and hospitable”; at other moments, he could be jealous, over-sensitive and prone to fits of rage, “biting and gnawing his fingers” in anger.
During John’s early years, Henry attempted to resolve the question of his succession. Henry the Young King had been crowned King of England in 1170, but was not given any formal powers by his father; he was also promised Normandy and Anjou as part of his future inheritance. Richard was to be appointed the Count of Poitou with control of Aquitaine, whilst Geoffrey was to become the Duke of Brittany. At this time it seemed unlikely that John would ever inherit substantial lands, and he was jokingly nicknamed “Lackland” by his father. Henry II wanted to secure the southern borders of Aquitaine and decided to betroth his youngest son to Alais, the daughter and heiress of Humbert III of Savoy. As part of this agreement John was promised the future inheritance of Savoy, Piemonte, Maurienne, and the other possessions of Count Humbert. For his part in the potential marriage alliance, Henry II transferred the castles of Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau into John’s name; as John was only five years old his father would continue to control them for practical purposes. Henry the Young King was unimpressed by this; although he had yet to be granted control of any castles in his new kingdom, these were effectively his future property and had been given away without consultation. Alais made the trip over the Alps and joined Henry II’s court, but she died before marrying John, which left the prince once again without an inheritance.
In 1173 John’s elder brothers, backed by Eleanor, rose in revolt against Henry in the short-lived rebellion of 1173 to 1174. Growing irritated with his subordinate position to Henry II and increasingly worried that John might be given additional lands and castles at his expense, Henry the Young King travelled to Paris and allied himself with Louis VII. Eleanor, irritated by her husband’s persistent interference in Aquitaine, encouraged Richard and Geoffrey to join their brother Henry in Paris. Henry II triumphed over the coalition of his sons, but was generous to them in the peace settlement agreed at Montlouis. Henry the Young King was allowed to travel widely in Europe with his own household of knights, Richard was given Aquitaine back, and Geoffrey was allowed to return to Brittany; only Eleanor was imprisoned for her role in the revolt. John had spent the conflict travelling alongside his father, and was given widespread possessions across the Angevin empire as part of the Montlouis settlement; from then onwards, most observers regarded John as Henry II’s favourite child, although he was the furthest removed in terms of the royal succession. Henry II began to find more lands for John, mostly at various nobles’ expense. In 1175 he appropriated the estates of the late Earl of Cornwall and gave them to John. The following year, Henry disinherited the sisters of Isabelle of Gloucester, contrary to legal custom, and betrothed John to the now extremely wealthy Isabelle. In 1177, at the Council of Oxford, Henry dismissed William FitzAldelm as the Lord of Ireland and replaced him with the ten-year-old John.
Henry the Young King fought a short war with his brother Richard in 1183 over the status of England, Normandy and Aquitaine. Henry II moved in support of Richard, and Henry the Young King died from dysentery at the end of the campaign. With his primary heir dead, Henry rearranged the plans for the succession: Richard was to be made King of England, albeit without any actual power until the death of his father; Geoffrey would retain Brittany; and John would now become the Duke of Aquitaine in place of Richard. Richard refused to give up Aquitaine; Henry II was furious and ordered John, with help from Geoffrey, to march south and retake the duchy by force. The two attacked the capital of Poitiers, and Richard responded by attacking Brittany. The war ended in stalemate and a tense family reconciliation in England at the end of 1184. In 1185 John made his first visit to Ireland, accompanied by 300 knights and a team of administrators. Henry had tried to have John officially proclaimed King of Ireland, but Pope Lucius III would not agree. John’s first period of rule in Ireland was not a success. Ireland had only recently been conquered by Anglo-Norman forces, and tensions were still rife between Henry II, the new settlers and the existing inhabitants. John infamously offended the local Irish rulers by making fun of their unfashionable long beards, failed to make allies amongst the Anglo-Norman settlers, began to lose ground militarily against the Irish and finally returned to England later in the year, blaming the viceroy, Hugh de Lacy, for the fiasco.
The problems amongst John’s wider family continued to grow. His elder brother Geoffrey died during a tournament in 1186, leaving a posthumous son, Arthur, and an elder daughter, Eleanor. The duchy of Brittany was given to Arthur rather than John, but Geoffrey’s death brought John slightly closer to the throne of England. The uncertainty about what would happen after Henry’s death continued to grow; Richard was keen to join a new crusade and remained concerned that whilst he was away Henry would appoint John his formal successor. Richard began discussions about a potential alliance with Philip II in Paris during 1187, and the next year Richard gave homage to Philip in exchange for support for a war against Henry. Richard and Philip fought a joint campaign against Henry, and by the summer of 1189 the king made peace, promising Richard the succession. John initially remained loyal to his father, but changed sides once it appeared that Richard would win. Henry died shortly afterwards.
After Richard’s death on 6 April 1199 there were two potential claimants to the Angevin throne: John, whose claim rested on being the sole surviving son of Henry II, and young Arthur of Brittany, who held a claim as the son of Geoffrey, John’s elder brother. Richard appears to have started to recognise John as his legitimate heir in the final years before his death, but the matter was not clear-cut and medieval law gave little guidance as to how the competing claims should be decided. With Norman law favouring John as the only surviving son of Henry II and Angevin law favouring Arthur as the heir of Henry’s elder son, the matter rapidly became an open conflict. John was supported by the bulk of the English and Norman nobility and was crowned at Westminster, backed by his mother, Eleanor. Arthur was supported by the majority of the Breton, Maine and Anjou nobles and received the support of Philip II, who remained committed to breaking up the Angevin territories on the continent. With Arthur’s army pressing up the Loire valley towards Angers and Philip’s forces moving down the valley towards Tours, John’s continental empire was in danger of being cut in two.
Warfare in Normandy at the time was shaped by the defensive potential of castles and the increasing costs of conducting campaigns. The Norman frontiers had limited natural defences but were heavily reinforced with castles, such as Château Gaillard, at strategic points, built and maintained at considerable expense. It was difficult for a commander to advance far into fresh territory without having secured his lines of communication by capturing these fortifications, which slowed the progress of any attack. Armies of the period could be formed from either feudal or mercenary forces. Feudal levies could only be raised for a fixed length of time before they returned home, forcing an end to a campaign; mercenary forces, often called Brabançons after the Duchy of Brabant but actually recruited from across northern Europe, could operate all year long and provide a commander with more strategic options to pursue a campaign, but cost much more than equivalent feudal forces. As a result commanders of the period were increasingly drawing on larger numbers of mercenaries.
After his coronation, John moved south into France with military forces and adopted a defensive posture along the eastern and southern Normandy borders. Both sides paused for desultory negotiations before the war recommenced; John’s position was now stronger, thanks to confirmation that Count Baldwin of Flanders and Renaud of Boulogne had renewed the anti-French alliances they had previously agreed to with Richard. The powerful Anjou nobleman William de Roches was persuaded to switch sides from Arthur to John; suddenly the balance seemed to be tipping away from Philip and Arthur in favour of John. Neither side was keen to continue the conflict, and following a papal truce the two leaders met in January 1200 to negotiate possible terms for peace. From John’s perspective, what then followed represented an opportunity to stabilise control over his continental possessions and produce a lasting peace with Philip in Paris. John and Philip negotiated the May 1200 Treaty of Le Goulet; by this treaty, Philip recognised John as the rightful heir to Richard in respect to his French possessions, temporarily abandoning the wider claims of his client, Arthur. John, in turn, abandoned Richard’s former policy of containing Philip through alliances with Flanders and Boulogne, and accepted Philip’s right as the legitimate feudal overlord of John’s lands in France. John’s policy earned him the disrespectful title of “John Softsword” from some English chroniclers, who contrasted his behaviour with his more aggressive brother, Richard.
The new peace would only last for two years; war recommenced in the aftermath of John’s decision in August 1200 to marry Isabella of Angoulême. In order to remarry, John first needed to abandon Isabel, Countess of Gloucester, his first wife; John accomplished this by arguing that he had failed to get the necessary papal permission to marry Isabel in the first place – as a cousin, John could not have legally wed her without this. It remains unclear why John chose to marry Isabella of Angoulême. Contemporary chroniclers argued that John had fallen deeply in love with Isabella, and John may have been motivated by desire for an apparently beautiful, if rather young, girl. On the other hand, the Angoumois lands that came with Isabella were strategically vital to John: by marrying Isabella, John was acquiring a key land route between Poitou and Gascony, which significantly strengthened his grip on Aquitaine. Unfortunately, Isabella was already engaged to Hugh de Lusignan, an important member of a key Poitou noble family and brother of Raoul de Lusignan, the Count of Eu, who possessed lands along the sensitive eastern Normandy border. Just as John stood to benefit strategically from marrying Isabella, so the marriage threatened the interests of the Lusignans, whose own lands currently provided the key route for royal goods and troops across Aquitaine. Rather than negotiating some form of compensation, John treated Hugh “with contempt”; this resulted in a Lusignan uprising that was promptly crushed by John, who also intervened to suppress Raoul in Normandy.
Although John was the Count of Poitou and therefore the rightful feudal lord over the Lusignans, they could legitimately appeal John’s actions in France to his own feudal lord, Philip. Hugh did exactly this in 1201 and Philip summoned John to attend court in Paris in 1202, citing the Le Goulet treaty to strengthen his case. John was unwilling to weaken his authority in western France in this way. He argued that he need not attend Philip’s court because of his special status as the Duke of Normandy, who was exempt by feudal tradition from being called to the French court. Philip argued that he was summoning John not as the Duke of Normandy, but as the Count of Poitou, which carried no such special status. When John still refused to come, Philip declared John in breach of his feudal responsibilities, reassigned all of John’s lands that fell under the French crown to Arthur – with the exception of Normandy, which he took back for himself – and began a fresh war against John.
The nature of government under the Angevin monarchs was ill-defined and uncertain. John’s predecessors had ruled using the principle of vis et voluntas, or “force and will”, taking executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions, often justified on the basis that a king was above the law. Both Henry II and Richard had argued that kings possessed a quality of “divine majesty”; John continued this trend and claimed an “almost imperial status” for himself as ruler. During the 12th century, there were contrary opinions expressed about the nature of kingship, and many contemporary writers believed that monarchs should rule in accordance with the custom and the law, and take counsel of the leading members of the realm. There was as yet no model for what should happen if a king refused to do so. Despite his claim to unique authority within England, John would sometimes justify his actions on the basis that he had taken council with the barons. Modern historians remain divided as to whether John suffered from a case of “royal schizophrenia” in his approach to government, or if his actions merely reflected the complex model of Angevin kingship in the early 13th century.
John inherited a sophisticated system of administration in England, with a range of royal agents answering to the Royal Household: the Chancery kept written records and communications; the Treasury and the Exchequer dealt with income and expenditure respectively; and various judges were deployed to deliver justice around the kingdom. Thanks to the efforts of men like Hubert Walter, this trend towards improved record keeping continued into his reign. Like previous kings, John managed a peripatetic court that travelled around the kingdom, dealing with both local and national matters as he went. John was very active in the administration of England and was involved in every aspect of government. In part he was following in the tradition of Henry I and Henry II, but by the 13th century the volume of administrative work had greatly increased, which put much more pressure on a king who wished to rule in this style. John was in England for much longer periods than his predecessors, which made his rule more personal than that of previous kings, particularly in previously ignored areas such as the north.
The administration of justice was of particular importance to John. Several new processes had been introduced to English law under Henry II, including novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor. These processes meant the royal courts had a more significant role in local law cases, which had previously been dealt with only by regional or local lords. John increased the professionalism of local sergeants and bailiffs, and extended the system of coroners first introduced by Hubert Walter in 1194, creating a new class of borough coroners. John worked extremely hard to ensure that this system operated well, through judges he had appointed, by fostering legal specialists and expertise, and by intervening in cases himself. John continued to try relatively minor cases, even during military crises. Viewed positively, Lewis Warren considers that John discharged “his royal duty of providing justice … with a zeal and a tirelessness to which the English common law is greatly endebted”. Seen more critically, John may have been motivated by the potential of the royal legal process to raise fees, rather than a desire to deliver simple justice; John’s legal system also only applied to free men, rather than to all of the population. Nonetheless, these changes were popular with many free tenants, who acquired a more reliable legal system that could bypass the barons, against whom such cases were often brought. John’s reforms were less popular with the barons themselves, especially as they remained subject to arbitrary and frequently vindictive royal justice.
One of John’s principal challenges was acquiring the large sums of money needed for his proposed campaigns to reclaim Normandy. The Angevin kings had three main sources of income available to them, namely revenue from their personal lands, or demesne; money raised through their rights as a feudal lord; and revenue from taxation. Revenue from the royal demesne was inflexible and had been diminishing slowly since the Norman conquest. Matters were not helped by Richard’s sale of many royal properties in 1189, and taxation played a much smaller role in royal income than in later centuries. English kings had widespread feudal rights which could be used to generate income, including the scutage system, in which feudal military service was avoided by a cash payment to the king. He derived income from fines, court fees and the sale of charters and other privileges. John intensified his efforts to maximise all possible sources of income, to the extent that he has been described as “avaricious, miserly, extortionate and moneyminded”. John also used revenue generation as a way of exerting political control over the barons: debts owed to the crown by the king’s favoured supporters might be forgiven; collection of those owed by enemies was more stringently enforced.
The result was a sequence of innovative but unpopular financial measures. John levied scutage payments eleven times in his seventeen years as king, as compared to eleven times in total during the reign of the preceding three monarchs. In many cases these were levied in the absence of any actual military campaign, which ran counter to the original idea that scutage was an alternative to actual military service. John maximised his right to demand relief payments when estates and castles were inherited, sometimes charging enormous sums, beyond barons’ abilities to pay. Building on the successful sale of sheriff appointments in 1194, John initiated a new round of appointments, with the new incumbents making back their investment through increased fines and penalties, particularly in the forests. Another innovation of Richard’s, increased charges levied on widows who wished to remain single, was expanded under John. John continued to sell charters for new towns, including the planned town of Liverpool, and charters were sold for markets across the kingdom and in Gascony. The king introduced new taxes and extended existing ones. The Jews, who held a vulnerable position in medieval England, protected only by the king, were subject to huge taxes; £44,000 was extracted from the community by the tallage of 1210; much of it was passed on to the Christian debtors of Jewish moneylenders. John created a new tax on income and movable goods in 1207 – effectively a version of a modern income tax – that produced £60,000; he created a new set of import and export duties payable directly to the crown. John found that these measures enabled him to raise further resources through the confiscation of the lands of barons who could not pay or refused to pay.
At the start of John’s reign there was a sudden change in prices, as bad harvests and high demand for food resulted in much higher prices for grain and animals. This inflationary pressure was to continue for the rest of the 13th century and had long-term economic consequences for England. The resulting social pressures were complicated by bursts of deflation that resulted from John’s military campaigns. It was usual at the time for the king to collect taxes in silver, which was then re-minted into new coins; these coins would then be put in barrels and sent to royal castles around the country, to be used to hire mercenaries or to meet other costs. At those times when John was preparing for campaigns in Normandy, for example, huge quantities of silver had to be withdrawn from the economy and stored for months, which unintentionally resulted in periods during which silver coins were simply hard to come by, commercial credit difficult to acquire and deflationary pressure placed on the economy. The result was political unrest across the country. John attempted to address some of the problems with the English currency in 1204 and 1205 by carrying out a radical overhaul of the coinage, improving its quality and consistency.
John’s personal life greatly affected his reign. Contemporary chroniclers state that John was sinfully lustful and lacking in piety. It was common for kings and nobles of the period to keep mistresses, but chroniclers complained that John’s mistresses were married noblewomen, which was considered unacceptable. John had at least five children with mistresses during his first marriage to Isabelle of Gloucester, and two of those mistresses are known to have been noblewomen. John’s behaviour after his second marriage to Isabella of Angoulême is less clear, however. None of John’s known illegitimate children were born after he remarried, and there is no actual documentary proof of adultery after that point, although John certainly had female friends amongst the court throughout the period. The specific accusations made against John during the baronial revolts are now generally considered to have been invented for the purposes of justifying the revolt; nonetheless, most of John’s contemporaries seem to have held a poor opinion of his sexual behaviour.
The character of John’s relationship with his second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, is unclear. John married Isabella whilst she was relatively young – her exact date of birth is uncertain, and estimates place her between at most 15 and more probably towards nine years old at the time of her marriage. Even by the standards of the time, Isabella was married whilst very young. John did not provide a great deal of money for his wife’s household and did not pass on much of the revenue from her lands, to the extent that historian Nicholas Vincent has described him as being “downright mean” towards Isabella. Vincent concluded that the marriage was not a particularly “amicable” one. Other aspects of their marriage suggest a closer, more positive relationship. Chroniclers recorded that John had a “mad infatuation” with Isabella, and certainly John had conjugal relationships with Isabella between at least 1207 and 1215; they had five children. In contrast to Vincent, historian William Chester Jordan concludes that the pair were a “companionable couple” who had a successful marriage by the standards of the day.
John’s lack of religious conviction has been noted by contemporary chroniclers and later historians, with some suspecting that John was at best impious, or even atheistic, a very serious issue at the time. Contemporary chroniclers catalogued his various anti-religious habits at length, including his failure to take communion, his blasphemous remarks, and his witty but scandalous jokes about church doctrine, including jokes about the implausibility of the Resurrection. They commented on the paucity of John’s charitable donations to the church. Historian Frank McLynn argues that John’s early years at Fontevrault, combined with his relatively advanced education, may have turned him against the church. Other historians have been more cautious in interpreting this material, noting that chroniclers also reported John’s personal interest in the life of St Wulfstan of Worcester and his friendships with several senior clerics, most especially with Hugh of Lincoln, who was later declared a saint. Financial records show a normal royal household engaged in the usual feasts and pious observances – albeit with many records showing John’s offerings to the poor to atone for routinely breaking church rules and guidance.
Within a few months of John’s return, rebel barons in the north and east of England were organising resistance to his rule. 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. John 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 the king was escalating the conflict. John 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 15 June 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 Innocent 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.
In September 1216 John began a fresh, vigorous attack. He marched from the Cotswolds, feigned an offensive to relieve the besieged Windsor Castle, and attacked eastwards around London to Cambridge to separate the rebel-held areas of Lincolnshire and East Anglia. From there he travelled north to relieve the rebel siege at Lincoln and back east to King’s Lynn, probably to order further supplies from the continent. In King’s Lynn, John contracted dysentery, which would ultimately prove fatal. Meanwhile, Alexander II invaded northern England again, taking Carlisle in August and then marching south to give homage to Prince Louis for his English possessions; John narrowly missed intercepting Alexander along the way. Tensions between Louis and the English barons began to increase, prompting a wave of desertions, including William Marshal’s son William and William Longespée, who both returned to John’s faction.
The king returned west but is said to have lost a significant part of his baggage train along the way. Roger of Wendover provides the most graphic account of this, suggesting that the king’s belongings, including the Crown Jewels, were lost as he crossed one of the tidal estuaries which empties into the Wash, being sucked in by quicksand and whirlpools. Accounts of the incident vary considerably between the various chroniclers and the exact location of the incident has never been confirmed; the losses may have involved only a few of his pack-horses. Modern historians assert that by October 1216 John faced a “stalemate”, “a military situation uncompromised by defeat”. John’s illness grew worse and by the time he reached Newark Castle he was unable to travel any farther; John died on the night of 18 October. Numerous – probably fictitious – accounts circulated soon after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums or a “surfeit of peaches”. His body was escorted south by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral in front of the altar of St Wulfstan. A new sarcophagus with an effigy was made for him in 1232, in which his remains now rest.
- December, 24, 1166
- Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England
- October, 19, 1216
- Newark Castle, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England
Cause of Death
- Fontevraud Abbey
- Departement de Maine-et-Loire Pays de la Loire