According to popular mythology, King John has forever been cast as a feckless and self-serving tyrant. This image is borne out in the legends of Robin Hood and the plays of Shakespeare, as well as in the writings of contemporaneous historians like Matthew Paris and Roger of Wendover. Some reactionary modern historians have attempted to reframe John as an admirable king, the mere victim of circumstances, hostage to fate, but this contrarian revisionism should be soundly disregarded. John was the youngest and favorite son of his father, Henry II, but circumstances shifted such that Richard achieved the succession of the crown. Throughout Richard’s reign, John very nearly caused a civil war, particularly when Richard departed on the “Third Crusade” to defeat Saladin. Richard was then captured and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor without returning to England for four years while leaving the crown open for John’s foibles.
John also disputed Richard’s named successor, his nephew Prince Arthur (son of Richard and John’s elder brother, Geoffrey). Prince Arthur was favored by certain barons, but John was eventually formally named successor to the crown at the end of Richard’s life. Following the death of Richard, both sides went to battle in the early 1200s: King John and his English barons fought Prince Arthur and his French legions. In the course of battle certain lands in Anjou and Normandy were lost to the French, and with them went the tragic cessation of the entire Angevin Empire and all of Normandy. The young Prince Arthur was later mysteriously imprisoned and possibly tortured in Falaise and Rouen. This act caused tension throughout John’s reign, particularly with the French, but it was nothing compared to the lasting embarrassment of losing his family’s vast lands in Western France. Prince Arthur is widely believed to have been murdered either directly or indirectly by King John -the latter was a widely accepted opinion in 13th century England. In Shakespeare’s play King John, an earl named Hubert de Burgh is shown dealing the murderous blow to Prince Arthur.
King John spent the next ten years of his kingship plotting to regain his lost territory in France. The loss of Anjou was a great stain on John’s legacy, however for this Winston Churchill finds at least some reason for optimism in his History of English Speaking Peoples. The Angevin region was a fractured and costly distraction for the English crown and it yielded little aside from prestige. It was as much to the advantage of France as it was for England to cede this vast kingdom. The 13th century barons, however, saw the loss of Anjou as a crippling defeat.
Once known as John “Lackland” (for the lack of land he was set to inherit from his father Henry II), John now became known as “swordsoft” -in stark contrast to his warrior predecessors: Henry II and Richard “Couer de Lion.” John was now managing a declining empire. John raised taxes drastically, thus alienating many of his subjects. He promised to launch a second attack on France to regain his lost lands but the venture was doomed from the start. Additionally, John was betrothed to Isabella of Gloucester but the marriage was annulled in 1199 on the grounds of consanguinity (the fact that they may have shared a common relative). John astutely remarried in 1200, this time to a French Countess, Isabella of Angoulême.
Meanwhile, John’s relationship with Rome had fallen to pieces when the Pope (Pope Innocent III, one of the strongest leaders to ever wear the Papal garb) named Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury against John’s chosen appointment. In the heat of the conflict, John confiscated the Church’s land, and he was promptly excommunicated by the Pope. John later reconciled with the Church in 1213 following successful campaigns in Ireland and Scotland. John was in need of Papal blessing to launch his follow-up invasion of France in order to regain the lost Angevin empire. So John bent the knee to Rome, accepting its sovereignty over England by committing an annual tribute. It was a remarkable abdication of the Crown to the Church. At any rate, in his plan to invade France John gained the support of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany along with the Counts of Boulogne and Flanders. Backed by such able military leaders, the English army landed in La Rochelle, France in February 1214, but England was badly beaten several months later at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214. Amidst crushing losses John was humiliated and forced to return to England empty-handed, with nothing to show for his many years of oppressive taxation.
The Birth of Magna Carta (1215)
In May 1215, following John’s failures in France, a rebellion broke out among the English barons. John was forced to the bargaining table by 40 barons at Runnymede, an open meadow stretched alongside the River Thames midway between London and the king’s castle at Windsor. There John was compelled to sign a new agreement: the ‘Great Charter’ (Magna Carta). This extraordinary document set new limits on monarchical and baronial powers, as well as an affirmation of freedom for the English Church and it established the rights and liberties for ‘all freemen of the realm and their heirs for ever.’ In fact, Magna Carta was only the most recent document in a long tradition of common law dating back to Henry I and even to Anglo-Saxon law regarding the relationship between king and people. Of King John, Winston Churchill writes: “…when the long tally is added it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom was in fact set up” (100).
In total, Magna Carta is comprised of a list of 63 clauses. Today, it is widely regarded as the first modern constitution in European history, despite the fact that it was initially a document intended to directly redress particular feudal grievances in England. In the United States, Magna Carta remains a supremely influential document. An early 1297 copy of Magna Carta stands on display at the National Archives in Washington DC, and a scene of the signing of Magna Carta can be found on the brass doors at the entryway to the United States Supreme Court (alongside other scenes, like the Shield of Achilles, and the Justinian Code). In President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 inaugural address, he announced the following:
“The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history . . . It was written in Magna Carta.”
Here is a portion of the text of Magna Carta:
“TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs:”
Much of the rights in Magna Carta are designed for the purposes of estate planning, the right to privacy, and due process: the rights of widows are discussed at length, as well as the rights of inheritors and their taxes, and many particular situations. However the most important part of Magna Carta comes at the 61st clause, which established an elected body of 25 barons who help to ensure justice and peace -an early echo of parliamentary governance. Henry II’s reign had initially established the English royal court system, but the Crown was still considered above the law, as evidenced by the failures of King John, thus Magna Carta along with the original “Articles of the Barons” gradually ushered in an unexpected era of law, due process, and parliamentarianism.
However, John quickly asked the Pope (Pope Innocent III) to annul the new charter, and once the Pope complied, civil war broke out in England. The rebels invited Prince Louis of France to join their cause (who later became King Louis VIII of France) and the rebels quickly gained large swaths of the country. King John’s carriage was then wrecked, his treasures looted, while he was attempting to cross the inlet of the North Sea. With it went John’s spirit and his health. While staying at Newark Castle, John ate peaches and drank beer through the night. He suddenly died shortly thereafter on October 18th or 19th in the year 1216 likely from a form of dysentery. John died an unmourned and an unloved king. Upon his death one contemporary wrote:
“Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.”
Following John’s death his son Henry III was crowned King at only 9 years old and Magna Carta was immediately reissued and reaffirmed in November 1216. Prince Louis withdrew his arms and returned to France.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, an English translation of Magna Carta via the British Library, Margam Annals, Matthew Paris, Roger of Wendover, and Shakespeare’s King John.