1902 Encyclopedia > King John

King John
(also known as: King John of England)
(1169-1216)
King of England (from 1199)




JOHN (1167-1216), king of England, youngest son of Henry II. and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and third king of the Plantagenet family, was born December 24, 1167. He was his father's favourite child, and Henry hoped to bestow on him the kingdom of Ireland. The Irish princes did homage to John at Oxford in 1177, and in 1185 he was sent to Ireland. His arrogant behaviour roused the resentment of the natives, and he was recalled in disgrace.

In the last revolt of Richard against Henry, John was base enough to join with his father's enemies. This treachery was the death-blow of Henry II. (1189). Richard, on his accession, made the most ample provision for John, giving him several English counties, and marrying him to the heiress of the great earldom of Gloucester. But he had so little trust in his brother's character that, before his own departure on the third crusade, he bound John to stay away from England for three years. At the end of the term John returned, and harassed Richard's justiciar, William Long-champ. The unpopularity of Longchamp enabled John, aided by the archbishop of Rouen, to lead a revolutionary movement by which Longchamp was deprived of the jus-ticiarship, and John recognized as summus rector of the kingdom; but the real power remained with the archbishop of Rouen. When the news of the king's captivity arrived, John entered into an active alliance with Philip II. of France, Richard's malignant enemy, and tried to seize the reins of government, asserting that the king was dead. But he was baffled by the fidelity of Richard's ministers and mother, and at Richard's return his castles had to be sur-rendered to the king. Richard treated John with great generosity, and for the rest of his reign John gave no further trouble. Richard on his deathbed declared John his heir, The principle of primogeniture, now generally adopted, would have pointed out Arthur of Brittany, son of John's elder brother Geoffrey, as the heir, and Philip II. made himself the champion of Arthur. John made fresh enemies by divorcing his wife, and marrying Isabella, heiress of the count of Angouleme, who was already betrothed to the Count of La Marche. The anger of the La Marche family caused a fresh outbreak of war, in which Arthur became involved. In a misguided attempt to capture his grandmother Eleanor, in the castle of Mirabeau, he was defeated and taken prisoner by John, who marched with great swiftness to his mother's aid. Arthur now dis-appears from history; and, though there is no certain in-formation about his death, it was generally believed at the time that John murdered him. Philip's court of peers de-clared John guilty, and sentenced him to forfeiture. John abandoned himself to pleasure, and made no attempt to defend his dominions; he showed such complete indiffer-ence, while Philip was reducing castle after castle in Nor-mandy, that it was said he was spell-bound by witchcraft. In 1204 all Normandy was lost. Anjou, Maine, and part of Aquitaine soon followed the fate of Normandy; John made only feeble or abortive attempts to save them. In 1205 his great quarrel with the church began. The monks of Canterbury had elected their sub-prior to the archbishopric, and John had nominated a minister of his own ; all parties appealed to Pope Innocent III., who took the matter into his own hands, and ordered the convent proctors to elect Stephen Langton, an Englishman already distinguished by learning and character. John's refusal to accept Langton brought sentence of interdict on his kingdom (1208). He was personally excommunicated in 1209, and in 1211 the pope issued a bull deposing him from his throne: the execution of the decree was committed to Philip, who prepared to invade England. John at last gave way, moved chiefly by a prophecy that on the next Ascension Day he would be no longer king. He made an abject submission to the papal legate Randulph, agreeing to hold his kingdom henceforth as a tributary fief of the popedom. Thus the ecclesiastical difficulty was settled, but now John had to settle a quarrel with his own people. He had incurred their hatred by his personal vices, by his cruelty and perfidy, of which the supposed murder of Arthur was only one instance among many, and by his exaction of taxes greatly in excess of the customary rates. The barons of the north began the quarrel by refusing to accompany John on the expedition to France which he planned immediately after his absolution, alleging that their tenures did not oblige them to service abroad. Langton restrained the king from doing immediate ven-geance on the barons, and in the meantime an import-ant assembly was held at St Albans (the first to which representatives from the towns are known to have been summoned), at which the justiciar promised in the king's name .that the laws of Henry I. should be observed. At an assembly at St Paul's the same year, Langton, who was the moulding spirit of the movement, produced the charter of Henry I., which became the basis of Magna Charta. John was now bent on trying to knit together the Germanic confederacy against Philip, which had been originated by Richard, He showed both policy and energy in this matter, but the barons of Poitou failed him at the critical moment of the war, and his nephew the emperor Otho was utterly defeated by Philip at Bouvines. John was forced to con-clude the peace of Chinon (1214), by which he ceded to Philip all bis claims on lands lying north of the Loire. He had scarcely returned to England when his barons formed a confederacy against him at Bury St Edmunds. He attempted to bribe the clergy by granting them free election ; but they stood firm to the national cause. The city of London gave its adhesion to the barons, and John found himself abandoned by all. He was obliged to grant the demands of the barons, and to sign (at Bunnymede, June 15, 1215), the Great Charter, which for two hundred years was to be the watchword of English freedom. John signed the charter without the least intention of keeping it, and he found a powerful ally in his new master Innocent III., who issued a bull against the charter, and suspended Langton. Langton went to Rome to appeal, and the patriot party was thus deprived of its wisest leader. War soon broke out again, but John was able to obtain a host of foreign mercenaries, and the barons were driven to make alliance with France. Louis, son of Philip II., arrived in England in May 1216, and John's unusual audacity and success deserted him at once. In three months the greater part of the country was in the hands of Louis. Yet the national mistrust of the foreigner was already causing a reaction in favour of John, when in marching across the Wash he met with the accident which led to his death. He was overtaken by the tide, lost all his baggage and treasure, and narrowly escaped himself. Vexation and fatigue, aggravated by excess in eating and drinking, brought on an attack of dysentery; with difficulty he reached Newark, where he died October 19, 1216.

The reign of John is a turning point in English history, and marks the beginning of a new era. (1) The separation of Normandy insured the free development of English life, and the absorption of the Norman nobility in the English people. (2) Magna Charta marks the first united attempt of the English people to limit the power of the king. Hitherto the people had been the allies of the royal power against the baronage ; for the two following centuries they are leagued with the baronage and the church against royal tyranny. (3) The surrender of John's kingdom to the pope, followed by the opposition of Innocent to English freedom and the papal exactions of the next reign, caused a change of feeling towards the papacy, and led to the anti-Roman legislation which went on from the reign of Edward I. till the Reformation. (E. S. A.)


The above article was written by Mrs. Ella S. Armitage, author of The Childhood of the English Nation.







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