King John I of England was born in Oxford, England on December 24, 1164. He was the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England. As the youngest of seven children, and in accordance with traditional English feudal customs, he was not given lands or castles due to his rank of birth. Therefore he lacked power and consequently earned the nickname of "John Lackland." As a result, John had to take advantage of any opportunity he could to gain the power he possessed. He even supported his infamous brother, Richard the Lionheart against their father, King Henry II, in a struggle for the throne that Richard eventually won.
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Richard however, was an absentee monarch, spending much of his time on crusade and this gave John ample time and freedom to commit mischief by attempting to depose Richard and take over the regency of England. Richard would eventually forgive John's attempts to gain the throne dismissing John as a child who had listened to bad counsel.
Richard I died in 1194 while fighting on French soil. He was accidentally felled by an arrow from one of his own English bowmen. Having no child from his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, the question of succession was up in the air. The only two legitimate claimants to the British throne were John and his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany. John had to move quickly to secure his claim to the throne, and he captured Arthur and imprisoned him for three years. Arthur was murdered reportedly by John's own hand.
John returned to England and was crowed King on May 17, 1199. He was married to Isabelle of Angouleme and had several children, many illegitimate from his constant dalliances with mistresses. John inherited an England in political, economic, and financial turmoil. However, John was energetic and enthusiastic about making government reforms. He set about restructuring his administration and reforming accounting practices. His main goal was to increase the crown treasury that had been depleted from Richard's reign due to constant warfare.
John also had another problem that would involve the baronial class. As a result of the two previous king's frequent absences from England, the English barons basically has unlimited power and freedom to do as they wished. When John began to reform and tighten controls on taxes and fees, the barons resented his monetary policies. John recognized that he had to curb the power of the barons and clergy in order to retain the power of the crown.
John set on a course to generate revenue for the crown by ignoring traditional English feudal customs and levying new taxes and fines at his whim. He would also arbitrarily seize lands, titles, and castles from his nobles for the slightest infractions, making them pay heavy fines in order to regain their lost lands as well as the king's favor. He would also sell forfeited lands and royal wards and widows to the highest bidder, disregarding age-old feudal customs in the process. As a result, John began to alienate the barons of England and his power began to erode.
John also quarreled with the clergy over retaining the rights of the crown to make ecclesiastic appointments. This would lead to a serious incident involving Pope Innocent III and John.
Upon the death of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, John exercised his right as king to make his own appointment to fill the vacant See of Canterbury. Rome however, had different ideas. Pope Innocent III declared Bishop Stephen of Langton the new Archbishop of Canterbury and John flatly refused his appointment. As a result, England was placed under Interdict and John was excommunicated. John took his vengeful fury out on the monks of Canterbury by expelling them from England. He then set about making life miserable for those who opposed him. He had a fearful temper and a long memory, and his insatiable quest for money and power, combined with his jealous nature, caused irreparable damage to John's regency and reputation. Revenge became a game for John and he exacted his pound of flesh from those who crossed him at any cost.
Eventually, John found out that King Philip Augustus of France was plotting to invade England. Realizing that he needed money and military aid he decided to turn to the pope as a penitent soul and accept Innocent's appointment of Langton to the See of Canterbury. John then placed England in the hands of Innocent making England a papal fief and as a result, gained much needed military and financial aid to defend England against her enemies and regain his lost Angevin holdings in France. It would be this very campaign in France that caused the barons to revolt. John asked for military service from his barons who refused to fight on foreign soil. He then levied a heavy tillage on the barons who refused to provide service. John had to hire a mercenary army and while he was away in France, the barons banded together to decide what to do about John's arbitrary style of rule. They drafted the "Unknown Charter of Liberties" and the "Articles of the Barons" and these documents were actually first drafts of Magna Carta.
John returned from France defeated and bitter. As he realized his barons were plotting against him, he began to fortify his personal holdings and this in turn alarmed the barons. As a result, the barons seized London on May 17, 1215. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, John agreed to accept an offer by Langton to mediate the dispute between the barons and the crown. A series of meetings were set up at Runnymeade in June of 1215. The barons presented John with Magna Carta on June 15, 1215 and the document was basically a list of grievances the barons had against their king. Magna Carta was never signed and in fact was only a verbal agreement between John and the barons.
The pope declared Magna Carta invalid on August 25, 1215 and civil war quickly ensued, lasting a little over a year. However, John died abruptly on October 19, 1216, of an intestinal ailment at the Bishop of Norwhich's castle. He was buried at the cathedral of St. Wulstam in Worchester. John was then succeeded by his nine-year-old son who would become Henry III.
Adams, George Burton, This History of England - From the Norman Conquest to the Death of John, (1066-1216), Greenwood Press Publishers, NY, 1969, pg. 435,436,437.
Holt, J.C., Magna Carta, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, NY, 1992, pg. 256.
Painter, Sidney, The Reign of King John, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD. 1966, pg. 1, 121, 341, 377.
Roberts, Clayton, Roberts, David, A History of England - Pre-history to 1714, Vol. 1, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ , 1985, pg. 118, 144.
Warren, W.L., King John, W.W. Norton Co., Inc., NY., 1961 pg. 17, 46, 83.
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December 10, 1999
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