John II (Poland)

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John II

John II (1455-1495) of Portugal, sometimes called "the Perfect Prince," ruled during a crucial period in European history that marked the start of the Age of Exploration. From his ascension to the throne in 1481 until his death fourteen years later, John II's royal treasury financed numerous expeditions that mapped out the African coast. Convinced that India lay on the other side of Africa, he even sent explorers overland. To the Portuguese, he was a much loved regent who curbed the power of the nobles, maintained peace with Spain, and became a great patron of Renaissance art.

John II was named after his great-grandfather, who secured Portugal's independence in the 1380s and founded the House of Aviz royal line. By the time of his arrival in May of 1455, alliances with other European royal lines had given the Aviz family English, French, and Spanish blood. His father, King Alfonso V, was even cousin to the ruling English monarch, Henry VI. Queen Isabel, however, died when John and his older sister Joana were still very young, and both grew close to their aunt, Filipa, an artist and scholar who wrote the first extant poetry by a Portuguese woman.

John was provided with an education suitable for a royal, which included fluency in Latin and a knowledge of science and art. He was betrothed to his cousin in a politically advantageous match, and married Leonor, of the powerful Braganca line, in January of 1471. He was 15 at the time, and his spouse just 12. Later in 1471, he won his knighthood, as was the Aviz tradition, in battle with his father in Morocco. Subjugation of the Moors, who had occupied Portugal after 700 C.E. for a few hundred years and still held part of Spain, was a preoccupation with the Aviz dynasty, and this was the third foray across the Straits of Gibraltar by his father alone. In August, their forces took a seaside fortress, Arzila, and the city of Tangier surrendered.

Mapped Coast of Africa

The year 1471 was also an important one in the annals of exploration, for Portuguese navigators, mapping out the coast of Africa, crossed the Equator for the first time. A 1454 papal decree granted the Portuguese throne sovereignty over this area, and explorers had been planting wooden crosses along the West African shores since. They also held the Azores Islands by the time of John's adulthood, which had become a grazing ground for large herds of Portuguese cattle, and the island of Madeira was producing sugar cane that Portugal exported to the rest of Europe.

In 1474, Alfonso gave John control of the Guineas, the large area situated east of the horn of Africa. It contained rich fisheries, black pepper, and ivory, and reports returned from traders about hairy, human-like animals who lived in trees there and could not be caught. A son with Leonor, named Alfonso in honor of his grandfather, was born in 1475. That same year, the monarch granted John full authority in Portugal before he departed to do battle at Toro against the Castilian empire of Spain. The widowed Alfonso had become enamored of a dispossessed princess, and went to war on her behalf. It was at his father's court at Toro that John met Ana de Mendoca, and a child, Jorge, resulted from their romance.

Reined in Noble Class

For a time, John commanded troops for his father, but the venture was a disastrous one, and Alfonso abdicated his throne to his son in September of 1477. He was proclaimed king at the royal palace at Santarem on November 10, 1477. His father disappeared to a Franciscan monastery, and the war simmered on until the Treaty of Alcocovas concluded it in 1479. Two years later his father died in 1481 at Sintra, and John formally became ruler of Portugal.

John assembled his first Cortes at Evora in November of 1481. The Cortes was a meeting of the clergy, the homens bon ("good men") who led Portugal's concelhos, or free boroughs, and the noble class, who were known as fidalgos ("filhos de Algo," or sons of somebody). No laws were passed at a Cortes, which only the king could call, but debates were held and complaints heard. The fidalgos were descendants of the Visigoths and enjoyed great prestige; under the preoccupied Alfonso V, they grew enriched and emboldened. They attempted to influence the courts, demanded increased tribute of wine and corn, and encroached upon the rights of the concelhos. At the first Cortes, the new king, determined to curb these abuses, had his advisors draw up a new oath of allegiance for the fidalgos, and compelled them to take it. The Duke of Braganca, whose family had enjoyed privileges since the 1440s as descendants of John I, was particularly incensed.

Convinced India Lay to the East

Meanwhile, the new regent looked to expand his empire in other places. On December 12, an expedition set sail to establish a fortress and trading post in the Gulf of Guinea at Elmina. This was known as Sao Jorge da Mina, named after the king's favorite saint, George. It was the first European colony in equatorial Africa, and the gold mine there enriched John's royal treasury enormously. It allowed the king to fund further expeditions, and Portuguese explorers began taking large granite pillars with them to plant in the ground instead of wooden crosses. Called padraos, the pillars featured the Aviz coat of arms as well as the bronze cross of the Order of Christ, the knightly order that emerged from the disbanded Knights of the Templar after the Crusades. John, as ruler, was master of the secret Order, and many of the navigators and sea captains who explored for Portugal belonged to it.

In 1482, John sent Diogo Cao and the first of the padraos to find the end of the African coast. At the time, it was thought that the continent perhaps extended all the way to the Arctic regions. Cao was unsuccessful in his goal, but he did find the mouth of the great Congo River, which was unlike any ever seen by a European, and a populous kingdom there. After meeting with its king, Cao left some Portuguese behind and returned to Portugal with a delegation of Africans, who fascinated John. They were given lavish quarters and feted at state banquets. But internal problems troubled the king during this same year: it was suspected that the Duke of Braganca had made contact with the Castilian royal family in preparation for a possible move against Portugal. The king was informed, and had the duke, Fernando II, arrested. He was sentenced to death and executed for treason in 1484.

John continued to send ships out to find the end of Africa. Finally, in 1488, the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the other side of Africa. Lacking provisions to continue, he returned to Portugal with the news that a passage to India had been found. Since the time of the Crusades and Marco Polo, trade with the Orient had brought spices, silks, and other exotic goods into Europe. However, these goods traveled overland a great distance, through the desert of the Middle East and through treacherous lands; taxes and highway robbery made them prohibitively expensive by the time they reached Portugal and the end of the European continent. If Portugal could find the sea route, they might profit handsomely from the trade.

John II and Columbus

There are theories that Christopher Columbus was actually a well-born Portuguese, not an Italian, and was part of John's elaborate ruse to keep the Spanish monarchs-Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage united Castile and Aragon-from discovering the route to India and claiming it for themselves. Most historians agree that Columbus first tried to interest John in his expedition across the Atlantic, but that the king was supposedly uninterested, and so Columbus went to Spain for funding instead. The alternate theory holds that Columbus was sent to Ferdinand and Isabella to convince them that the riches of India could be reached by sailing west. Far from being the misguided navigator that popular myth holds, historians concede that Columbus was a learned man, like many of the Portuguese seafarers, and may have been a member of the Order of Christ as well. Many in the Order were well aware that a large land mass lay on the other side of the Atlantic. A member had sailed to an island off the coast of Brazil as early as 1438, and the Portuguese knew that Basque fishermen from northern Spain made regular forays to the cod fisheries near Newfoundland.

When Columbus returned to Europe from conquering the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti for Spain, he met first with John in Lisbon. There followed negotiations between Portugal and Spain over territorial rights in the New World. To Portugal, according to a 1480 continuation of the Alcocovas treaty called the Treaty of Toledo, was reserved the Cape Verde islands, "and any other lands that are found or conquered below the Canary Islands and the west of Guinea." Columbus's discoveries lay south of the Canaries, and so negotiations with Spain followed. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI resolved the dispute. The dividing line between what Spain and Portugal might explore and claim was to be west of the Azores; Spain's share was to the west, while territory on the eastern side of the line was Portugal's. This meant that John-whose famed grand-uncle Henry the Navigator had concluded that India was on the other side of Africa-was granted the continent of Africa as well as the Orient.

A Triumph of Diplomatic Trickery

The full Treaty of Tordesillas, signed on June 7, 1494 between John and the Spanish monarchs, set the dividing line another 370 leagues to the west of the Archipelago of Cape Verde, which assured Portugal of rights over Brazil, too. But there would be few years left in his life to enjoy these triumphs. His son and heir, Alfonso VI, had fallen from a horse at Santarem, and died in the hut of fishermen a few years before. John's illegitimate son Jorge became heir to the throne, and this caused marital tension between him and Isabella.

In October of 1495, the king fell ill and died within a week. Near his death, John decreed that his cousin, the duke of Beja, should succeed him. His successor was called Manuel the Fortunate, and he ruled until 1521. During his reign, John's foresight for expansion bore full fruit for Portugal. Its overseas empire expanded terrifically: just three years after his death, Vasco da Gama's ships reached India. Brazil was formally claimed in 1500, the Indian coastal kingdom of Goa captured in 1510, and a port in China, Macao, was ruled as a colony of Portugal from 1557 to 1999, outlasting even the world's most famous colony, the British-held Hong Kong.

John left a legacy as a benevolent ruler. He took in Jewish refugees from Spain's famous 1492 expulsion, and founded what was the most modern medical facility in the world at the time, All Saints Hospital in Lisbon in 1492. In 1498, his widow Leonor founded a charity to aid the poor and cure the sick, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as Misericordia. As a testimony to his influence, it was John's Castilian foes who nicknamed him El Principe Perfecto, or the Perfect Prince.


Barreto, Mascarenhas, The Portuguese Columbus: Secret Agent of King John II, translated by Reginald A. Brown, St. Martin's, 1992.

Sanceau, Elaine, The Perfect Prince: A Biography of the King Dom Joao II, Livraria Civilizacao-Editora, 1959. □

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John II

King of france


Famous Family . One of the greatest royal families of the French Middle Ages was the Valois dynasty. In the course of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the Valois became dukes and countesses (for example, Louis, Duke of Orleans, and Jeanne, Countess of Bar), empresses and queens (for example, Catherine of Constantinople and Madeleine of Scotland), archbishops and abbesses (for example, Michel de Buey and Madeleine of Orleans), and after 1328 the kings of France when the Capetian Charles IV died leaving no sons. The Valois had in fact started out as nobles—their rise to power stemmed from their having created a lineage from Charles, Count of Valois, the brother of King Philip IV the Fair of France. Hardly a pivotal figure in the rise to power of the Valois, the renown of John II in particular would rest in part on his role in creating a more modern system of French coinage.

Political Connections . The reign of John II (1350–1364) was determined by his father, Philip VI, who became the first Valois king in the early fourteenth century to give continuity to the French crown under succession claims from the English king, Edward III. The threat from English royalty was to play an important part in the early Valois’ strength. Under Philip VI, the French royal council became the dynasty’s strongest supporters against King Edward III. Philip’s son, John, also became thereby the most powerful representative of the French throne, despite his inability to exert the necessary political influence over a reform-minded nobility, a power-hungry bourgeoisie, and his own opportunistic courtiers. In 1356 day-to-day control of the kingdom fell to his son, heir apparent Charles V, who took charge of trying to raise the ransom sum of twelve and one-half tons of gold, three millions ecus, to free his father from English imprisonment stemming from his capture at the Battle of Poitiers. The English crown freed King John II in 1360 on four conditions: the signing of the Treaty of Brétigny-Calais; the relinquishing by France of about half its continental territory; the paying of a king’s ransom; and the retention of surrogate hostages.

Branching Effects . The fortunes of the French economy had been growing all the more precarious under the Valois’s reign. A series of monetary debasements were instituted from 1337 with the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between France and England. Unlike the English royalty of the fourteenth century, which had extremely circumscribed taxation rights, historically each of the French kings had been granted a great deal of autonomy in levying. As war began, however, to take a larger share of their tax revenues, only devaluation seemed to insulate them against the losses in real terms. King John II instituted several economic reforms upon his release from English captivity. A new system was introduced to prevent a full-blown monetary crisis from bringing down the French economy: the Pied de Monnaie system denoted with one number the intrinsic worth of a coin with respect to its weight and fineness, with reference to the sound money of 1329. New taxes were ordered, the most unpopular being the gabelle (tax on salt).

Ruler of His Destiny . As monetarists, the Valois were enabled to pay about one-third of King John’s ransom, with, in addition, three of his fourteen children playing a major role in his release, as surrogate hostages. John’s primary activities once at liberty were aimed at his indebtedness to the English crown, and he was able to find support by unusual means through economic maneuvers, making himself ruler of France again in everything but power. Through connections with a rich duke in Milan, Galeas Visconti, John managed to have his daughter Isabelle, age twelve, sold into marriage for more than another one-third of his English ransom amount. Indeed, France was so buoyed at his liberation that the royal mint marked the event by releasing a new gold coin. This first commemorative French coin backfired in spirit, however. When one of the king’s sons, Louis of Anjou, was reported in 1364 to have escaped from his prison in Calais ostensibly to go on crusade, the king himself returned to England as hostage to restore the family honor. Until his death in April of that year in London, the king’s imprisonment set the tone for a return to regency in France.

Patron of Knights . John’s rule not only influenced the distribution of economic power in France and England, but it also affected medieval chivalric life. He promoted the military pursuits of knights through the foundation of a new chivalric order, the Order of the Star. He was particularly active in military encounters himself in the Hundred Years’ War. The Order of the Star became his centerpiece military entourage. John supported a new knights’ order to instill bravery through oaths of steadfastness in battle. His ideals came under challenge in the Battle of Poitiers, where he saw most of the Order’s members killed. The Order of the Star, started in 1351, nonetheless set the standard for a national chivalric order. Its attire, the red cloak bearing a huge black star of eight points, and motto, “They show the way to kings by the star,” guaranteed the predominance of the king’s military order. In his own prowess on horseback and as patron of knights, John sustained a chivalric code of military conduct that would not persist for long with his successors.

Image Concerns . John’s interest in coinage was partly prompted by his worries about how his captivity had affected his royal/knightly image. The Order of the Star, for example, had not survived his years as a prisoner in London. The king became strongly attached to minted symbolic representations also as a counterpoint to the stresses on the economy. On the first coin he issued, the Franc à Cheval, at 3.764 grams of pure gold, he made sure there was a worthy representation: the king in full armor on horseback holding his sword in his left hand. He also, however, took special pains at humility, complementing an obverse caption, “John, King of the Franks, by God’s grace,” with a reverse motif of a cross bedecked with flowers surrounded by the caption “May Christ conquer, rule and reign.” With his release from captivity, the king chose to create his own sense of freedom through the newly “franchised” (hence the word franc) coinage.

Collapse of Royal Strength . French royal strength began seriously to falter with John’s first imprisonment in 1356. Even before being captured, the Valois had focused more on his image and patronage roles than on sound rule. Charles V became, however, an active behind-the-scenes ruler of France and a major support to his father during his captivity. He forged per force administrative ties with the leading merchants of Paris who under the leadership of Etienne Marcel, in league with John’s cousin, Charles “the Bad,” King of Navarre, had arisen in revolt. Even as the political alliances in Paris were collapsing in 1356, two years later, the standing of Charles V’s economic strength in his own county of Dauphiné could no longer depend on the resources of the peasantry. Royal demands for contributions in labor and money to aid in the king’s ransom were met by a peasant rebellion, the Jacquerie.

Impact . With the imprisonment of King John II, Charles V had to step in to take the lead in political and economic rule. Charles V was in the long run to prove to be a much more competent administrator. His greater prominence earned him the title of Charles “the Wise,” as opposed to his father’s John ”Bon Homme” (Good Fellow). Nevertheless, the close relationship between father and son and the kingdom was to remain a defining feature of the early generations of the Valois dynasty. While Louis of Anjou, too, would acquire royal power as King of Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem in 1382, after having become the adopted son of Jeanne I, Queen of Naples, much of his father’s positive legacy would stem from his act to cleanse the “blemished honor to the lineage,” which his son’s escape had caused.


Anne Denieul-Cormier, Wise and Foolish Kings: The First House of Valois, 1328–1498 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980).

John Bell Henneman, Royal Taxation in Fourteenth-Century France: The Captivity and Ransom of John II, 13567Ndash;1370 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976).

Henneman, Royal Taxation in Fourteenth-Century France: The Development of War Financing, 13227ndash;1356 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

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John II

John II (1319-1364) was king of France from 1350 to 1364. Stubborn and greedy, he refused to heed good advice, and his reign was marked by social and economic crises.

The son of Philip VI of France and Jeanne of Burgundy, at the age of 13 John was married to Bonne of Luxemburg. He began his military career in 1340, as the commander of royal military forces in Hainaut. In 1341 he was his father's lieutenant in Brittany, and in 1344 he held the same office in Languedoc.

Shortly after his coronation in 1350, John II began the round of banquets, festivals, and tournaments that characterized his reign, and he continued the recently established French royal tradition of lavishly dispensing artistic patronage. His ill-considered attachment to favorites, however, created hostility among the higher nobility, and his employment of men in high public office who exploited their power for private gain contributed substantially to the crisis of public finance that culminated in the 1350s, a point of economic crisis for all of Christendom.

John's inability or unwillingness to deal with political crises diplomatically alienated his powerful cousin and rival Charles (the Bad) of Navarre, who remained John's most dangerous subject throughout his reign. In 1355 the war with the king of England, later called the Hundred Years War (1339-1453), resumed. John sustained a stunning defeat by Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers on Sept. 19, 1356. Captured by the English, he was taken in 1357 to England as a prisoner until his enormous ransom could be paid.

John's misrule had created a social and economic crisis in France. As early as 1351 the coinage, for example, had to be debased, and his humiliation and disaster at Poitiers inspired a revolutionary faction of the Estates General to make strong demands for reform upon the regent, John's son Charles, later King Charles V. From 1356 to 1358 these demands and the later uprising known as the Jacquerie threatened France with political and social chaos. By 1359, however, Charles had managed to restore some public order, and in 1360 he signed the Treaty of Brétigny, which set John's ransom at an impossibly high figure, and promised to give hostages to the English until the ransom was paid.

John returned to France to resume his governance and raise his ransom, but with little success or good judgment in either project. In 1363 one of his sons escaped from the English, to whom he had been given as a hostage for his father. John II returned voluntarily to England to finish his own captivity. He died in England in April 1364.

Although John's reign failed to guide France in its quarrel with England or forestall its economic and social crisis, it did witness the beginning of a standing army, the regularization of extraordinary taxation, the patronage of the arts, and, in spite of John's repeated personal failures, the immense, politically creative prestige of the king of France.

Further Reading

There is no adequate biography of John in English. The best and most recent discussion of John's reign and its contemporary background is in Kenneth Fowler, The Age of Plantagenet and Valois (1967). A lengthier discussion is in E. Perroy, The Hundred Years War (1945; trans. 1951). The contemporary view of John's reign is in Jean Froissart, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain (many editions). □

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John II ( the Good) (1319–64) King of France (1350–64), son of Philip VI. In the Hundred Years' War, he was captured (1356) at Poitiers and held in captivity in England. He was released on the promise of a large ransom, but failure to meet the terms forced his return to England, where he died.

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John II (1609–72) King of Poland (1648–68). His reign was beset by wars against Sweden, Russia, and the Ottoman Turks. Territory was lost, Poland devastated, the royal government bankrupted, and John was forced to abdicate.