views updated May 14 2018


John (1167-1216) was king of England from 1199 to 1216. The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was issued during his reign.

Born on Dec. 24, 1167, John was the youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Henry first assigned provinces to his sons, John received no share, hence his nickname "Lackland." He grew up among family feuds, rebellion, and treachery. During his formative years, his mother was his father's prisoner, and his brothers quarreled with their father and among themselves and allied with the most dangerous enemy of their house, the king of France. In 1176 John was betrothed to Isabella, the richly endowed coheiress of the Earl of Gloucester; a year later Henry made him lord of Ireland. John repaid Henry's affection by joining his brother Richard and Philip II of France against him in 1189; his treachery was the final blow to his sick and defeated father.

When Richard the Lion-Hearted became king (1189) and was preparing to go on crusade, he made lavish grants to John in England and made him Count of Mortain, in Normandy, but excluded him from any share in the government. John was ambitious; he tried by every means to obtain power and recognition as Richard's heir, at least in England. He put himself at the head of the opposition to Richard's chancellor, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, and forced him out of the country but failed to bring over the Council of Regency to his treacherous designs. Richard's return resulted in his total discomfiture, but he eventually regained the King's favor and most of his property.

Loss of Normandy

On Richard's death (April 6, 1199) John was accepted in Normandy and England. He was crowned king at Westminster on May 27, Ascension Day. But Anjou, Maine, and Brittany declared for Arthur, son of his older brother Geoffrey, who had died in 1186. Philip of France, as overlord, claimed to have the power to adjudicate matters concerning the French fiefs; in May 1200 at Le Goulet he recognized John as heir to all Richard's lands in return for substantial concessions and an exceptionally large payment as "relief."

Shortly afterward, his first childless marriage having been annulled, John married Isabella, daughter of Adhémar, Count of Angoulême. His position in France was still precarious; Arthur, as a rival claimant, was a focus for rebellion in Anjou and Poitou. In 1201, in the course of a renewed dispute with John, members of the important family of Lusignan appealed against him to the court of King Philip. John dared not appear; his French fiefs were therefore declared to be forfeit, and Philip set out with an army to enforce the sentence. John captured Arthur, who was murdered, possibly by John himself (April 1203), but he could not oppose King Philip's advance. By July 1204 Normandy, which with short intervals had been united to England since 1066, was in the hands of the king of France.

Dispute with the Church

In July 1205 John lost one of his best advisers, Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. As new archbishop, the monks of Canterbury chose first their subprior and then the King's nominee; Pope Innocent III rejected both and arranged the election of the learned Englishman Cardinal Stephen Langton. John declared that his customary rights had been infringed; he refused to admit Langton and seized the property of the monks. The Pope laid an interdict on England from March 24, 1208, and in November 1209 John was declared excommunicate (but not deposed, as is sometimes stated). He responded by seizing the property of the clergy and monks, who had to buy it back, and by keeping abbeys and bishoprics vacant.

Neither interdict nor excommunication seriously disrupted the government of England, but heavy taxes and capricious treatment of certain barons caused an alarming conspiracy against John in 1212, and he learned that the king of France was preparing an invasion. This dangerous situation led him to negotiate with the Pope. By a cunning stroke he turned this formidable opponent into his protector. In May 1213, having agreed to accept Langton, he made over England and Ireland to the Roman Church, to receive them back as fiefs on payment of an annual tribute.

Magna Carta

John now prepared a counterattack on King Philip. In 1214, in league with the emperor Otto and Philip's enemies in the Low Countries, he led an army into Poitou and Anjou. He had some success, but Philip's decisive victory over Otto and John's other allies at Bouvines (July 27, 1214) destroyed his hope of recovering Anjou and Normandy. This defeat reacted on his prestige at home, where he had already alienated powerful barons. In January 1215 John received demands for reform and promised to reply after Easter. Meanwhile, both sides gathered their forces, and both complained to the King's overlord, the Pope. But the Pope's attempts at peacemaking, heavily biased in favor of the King, only exacerbated the dispute.

In April 1215 John heard that a large group of barons had met in arms at Brackley and had renounced their fealty; on May 17 they were admitted to London. Negotiations went on for several weeks, but the King was temporarily outmaneuvered and was forced to restore lands and castles to his opponents. At the same time, he made more general promises of new reforms and of the observance of old customs in a comprehensive charter (Magna Carta) dated June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines. The charter as a whole deserves its ancient reputation as a landmark in the struggle to secure government without oppression, efficiency without tyranny. Many of its clauses were designed to control the arbitrary behavior of the King and his officials; many others concerned the administration of justice. Two clauses (39 and 40) were of great importance in later times: the King promised not to act against free men except by judgment of their peers or the law of the land and never to sell, delay, or deny justice.

These promises were mostly unexceptionable and were the result of negotiations in which the King's advisers had hammered out terms with the rebels. Unfortunately, a "security clause" appended to the charter, imposed by the more extreme faction, made it unworkable. John was forced to authorize a committee of 25 barons to enforce the terms, even against himself, and to approve a general oath taking throughout the country in support of the 25. No medieval king could submit to such coercion; John claimed that his oath to observe the charter had been extracted by force and fear, and on these grounds the Pope immediately annulled it.

Compromise was now impossible. Civil war broke out in earnest later in the summer, and the rebels, their temporary military superiority reduced by the skill of the King and the efforts of his supporters, now adopted the aim of the extremists, the substitution of another king. Louis, son and heir of King Philip of France, was invited to claim the throne. Louis arrived in May 1216 and at first had some success, but again John recovered his position with the help of loyal barons and foreign mercenaries. His sudden death at Newark on Oct. 19, 1216, robbed him of victory. He was buried at his own request next to St. Wulfstan in Worcester Cathedral. His death did indeed make the reconciliation of the rebels easier; within a year Louis retired from England, and the country settled down to the long minority of John's young son King Henry III.

Despite its stormy close, John's reign saw important developments in royal administration. There were experiments in methods of taxation and reforms of the Exchequer. The Chancery organized more elaborate and complete records than any contemporary state. The courts of Common Pleas and King's Bench became distinct, and better procedures were evolved for dealing with different types of action. Municipal self-consciousness was stimulated by the grant of royal charters to many towns and by increased trade.

Because of the loss of Normandy, the King and the aristocracy spent more time in England and identified themselves with English life and institutions; thus a long step was taken toward the formation of a unified English people.

Further Reading

Excellent for the general reader is W. L. Warren, King John (1961). Sidney Painter, The Reign of King John (1949), was intended as the first part of a large-scale study. J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (1965), supersedes earlier books on that subject. A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (1951; 2d ed. 1955), describes John's reign in England. There is a good short account of John's activities in France by F. M. Powicke in The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6 (1929). John's relations with the Church and the Pope are illustrated in Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, edited and translated by C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (1953). □


views updated May 29 2018

John (1167–1216), king of England (1199–1216). As every schoolboy knows, John was a monster and a tyrant. It is a reputation with deep historical roots, culminating in the judgements of Victorian historians such as J. R. Green, whose hugely influential popular history of England decisively shaped attitudes. His image of John is grisly: ‘ ”Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.” The terrible view of his contemporaries has passed into the sober judgment of history … in his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness, their insolence, their selfishness, their unbridled lust, their cruelty and tyranny, their shamelessness, their superstition, their cynical indifference to honour or truth.’ Because of these characteristics, it was no wonder that John lost the support of his subjects, that he lost the Angevin empire in France, and that he was brought to book at Runnymede in 1215.

The Victorian view of John stemmed from a perspective on history from the high moral ground, and it drew its support almost entirely from contemporary chroniclers. At the time of John's death, there was already plenty of material that might be used to condemn him, but his legend was by no means complete and not even agreed by all. That process only occurred in the next 40 years, as a result of the deliberate fabrication of an image of John by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, successive historians of St Albans. (It is Paris whom Green cites in the quotation above.) It is to them that so many of the notorious anecdotes concerning John are due, anecdotes that acted as a vehicle for savage denunciation of the inner being as well as the policies of the king, the better to justify the stance made against him in 1215, and to emphasize the need for Magna Carta. By c.1250, the elements of the legend had crystallized.

In the 20th cent., the unreliability of many of these chronicle sources was exposed, serving partly to rehabilitate John. More importantly, through close analysis of the record evidence for the reign, John has come to appear in a new light as a capable administrator with great powers of organization and application. No one would now doubt that John was an intelligent and able man. The system of continental alliances that he built up against Philip II of France prior to the disaster at Bouvines (1214) reveals diplomatic skill and a grasp of strategy. His surrender of England as a papal fief in 1213 was a brilliant piece of manœuvring, at a stroke dividing the pope from the conspiracy developing against John in France and England. Again, his actions in 1215–16 show both considerable ingenuity and a sure tactical sense, both political and military.

Another approach has stressed the continuity between the regimes of Henry II and his sons, placing John firmly in his dynastic context. Many of John's alleged acts of tyranny appear as continuations of the policies of his predecessors, although it is agreed that he bore down ever more heavily upon his subjects. And he did this, it is argued, not out of any innate wickedness, but because he had no option. His English subjects would have to be exploited, because only with English resources could he regain his lost French lands, his overriding policy goal after 1204 when the Angevin empire collapsed.

From these perspectives, John has been rescued from the excessive moralizings of Victorian historians and their predecessors. Yet modern scholarship has also strengthened some of the traditional charges against him. Perhaps the most infamous charge, that he murdered—or caused to be murdered—his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany, now seems virtually certain. Other acts of cruelty are also proven, his hanging of 28 hostages, sons of rebel Welsh chieftains, in 1212, or the starving to death of William de Braose's wife and son in a royal prison. The consensus has grown that although men of his age, and of others, could be excessively cruel, John overstepped the mark.

In a similar vein, he did not live up to contemporary expectations of a king. In contrast to his brother Richard I, he seemed incompetent in warfare. Particularly damaging was the epithet ‘Softsword’ applied to him as early as 1200. Yet he could be capable of decisive military action. Again, he took the business of dispensing justice seriously, but often his subjects could complain that the judgment rendered was unjust and partial. And in pressing ever harder upon his subjects out of financial necessity, if nothing else, he laid himself open to the charge of introducing evil customs and unlawful innovations.

Had John succeeded in regaining his lost lands, Magna Carta would almost certainly not have occurred and the legend about him would never have developed. But he lost, and paid a posthumous penalty as well. And one of the chief reasons that he lost lay in his appalling handling of his greater subjects. Whatever John's technical competence as a ruler, it was constantly compromised by his secretive and suspicious nature towards them, his jealousy, unpredictability, and caprice. None could live easily with such a ruler, his conviction that they were untrustworthy serving only to alienate them. Rule by fear might keep them in check, but in the long run, John's regime was dangerously unstable. He and his greater subjects confronted each other in a closed system of self-fulfilling preconceptions. John remains baffling and enigmatic. As Lewis Warren put it succinctly, ‘He had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.’

S. D. Lloyd


Painter, S. , The Reign of King John (Baltimore, 1949);
Turner, R. V. , King John (1994);
Warren, W. L. , King John (2nd edn. 1978).


views updated May 29 2018

John male forename.
John Barleycorn a personification of barley, or of the malt liquor made from this grain; the term is recorded from the early 17th century, in the title of a ballad of ‘the bloody murther of Sir John Barleycorn’.
John Bull a personification of England or the typical Englishman, represented as a stout red-faced farmer in a top hat and high boots. The name is that of a character representing the English nation in John Arbuthnot's satire Law is a Bottomless Pit; or, the History of John Bull (1712).
John Company a nickname for the East India Company, taken over from the name Jan Kompanie, by which the Dutch East India Company and Dutch government were traditionally known in the East Indies; a translation (1785) of Sparrman's Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope notes that the Dutch as traders in this area had represented their company as ‘one individual powerful prince, by the Christian name of Jan or John’, and that from this the writer had told his interpreter to say ‘that we were the children of Jan Company’.
John Hancock informal American expression for a personal signature, perhaps from the American Revolutionary leader John Hancock (1737–93), the first of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

See also Blue John at blue, Dear John letter.


views updated May 29 2018

John one of the commonest Jewish and Christian names (the name of two saints of the N. T., John Baptist and John Apostle and Evangelist). ME. Io(ha)n, later Ihon, Iohn, John (sp. being based partly on abbrevs. of the L. form, Ihes, Ihōēs, Ih̄s, etc.) — late L. Iōannēs (medL. Iōhannēs) — N.T. Gr. Iōánnēs — Heb. yôhānān, for ȳhōhānān
, expl. as ‘God (Jah) is gracious’. Cf. JACK. John Bull typical or individual Englishman; from the name of a character repr. the Eng. nation in Arbuthnot's satire ‘Law is a Bottomless Pit’, 1712. John DORYXVIII. Hence johnny, johnnie (J-) pet-form of John; transf. fellow, chap. XVII.


views updated May 17 2018

John (1167–1216) King of England (1199–1216), youngest son of Henry II. John ruled during Richard I's absence on the Third Crusade. Disgraced for intriguing against Richard, John nevertheless succeeded him as king. The loss of vast territories in France (1204–05) and heavy taxation made him unpopular. In 1215, he was compelled to sign the Magna Carta, and his subsequent disregard of the terms led to the first Barons' War.


views updated May 14 2018

john / jän/ • n. inf. 1. a toilet. 2. a prostitute's client.

About this article

John (English king)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic