If Richard Coeur de Lion has entered into legend as much as he has entered into history, it’s highly possible that his youngest brother has done so even more. Between treatments by Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, he has been vilified several times over, leading to a modern world that views him as one of the chief examples of greed and excess. Many historians have delved further into history to try to see if they couldn’t wipe these smears off of his name, but it’s becoming very clear that the fictional accounts, while naturally exaggerated, are based in truth. While he had to step into the shoes of his father and brother – and attempt to right the problems that they had left him – history would prove that he failed miserably at these tasks.
John Lackland, (1166  – 1216) House of Anjou
“John was indeed a great prince but scarcely a happy one and, like Marius, he experienced the ups and downs of fortune. He was munificent and liberal to outsiders but a plunderer of his own people, trusting strangers rather than his subjects, wherefore he was eventually deserted by his own men and, in the end, little mourned.”
The anonymous Barnwell annalist
What prospects were there for a fourth surviving son, even one born of royal blood? Not many – if they were not sent into the Church, they were married off to noblewomen and given (on occasion) a small part of the inheritance, if it didn’t result in the eldest son inheriting less than his father had. It was to one of these fates that John was born, the youngest of his brothers by nearly a decade (the next oldest brother, Geoffrey, was a few months shy of eight years older). Though the families of the nobility were not always close by nature, John was not even raised at court (either Henry’s or Eleanor’s), instead spending the first years of his life at Fontevrault Abbey. When his father divided up his realm into inheritances to give to his sons, there was not enough to go around (at least to Henry’s liking or medieval tradition) – due to which his father called the youngest son “Lackland”, a name which stuck with him.
John was still a young child, only seven years old, when the Great Revolt broke out in 1173 and 1174, so it is no surprise that he was the only one of his father’s sons who did not rise up against Henry. What may be surprising, however, is that John was the indirect cause of the revolt – Henry, trying to give his youngest son something to bring into a marriage with the heiress of Savoy, had tried to bequeath John with three castles that fell within the domain of the Young King Hal (specifically Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau). Though the proposed marriage never materialized (the bride died shortly thereafter), the specter of his father trying this again was enough to drive Hal to his father in law, Louis VII of France, followed soon by Richard and Geoffrey (their mother was captured when she tried to join them).
As a result of this revolt, though Henry forgave his sons (and indeed, empowered them even more), it was John who soon became his favorite, and the king’s attempts to get his youngest son an inheritance were redoubled – with John being given the nominal title of Lord of Ireland in 1177 (an earlier excursion had managed to bring at least a portion of the island under Angevin control). On Hal’s death in 1183, his father’s plans for shifting his sons’ inheritances around would have landed John with Aquitaine, but Richard would not give up the actual power he had in the duchy for the implied (but nonexistent) power of an heir. In a rage, Henry told John that if he wanted Aquitaine, he would have to take it himself – which he immediately tried to do (with Geoffrey’s help) unsuccessfully.
After Geoffrey’s death in 1186, John theoretically became that much closer to the throne, as only Richard was ahead of him. However, as his father had not named an heir, there was a little bit more hope – and indeed, many thought that Henry was planning to pass over Richard in favor of John, which led Richard to form an alliance with he young French king Philippe II in an attempt to force Henry to name him his heir. Henry was a celebrated captain of war, and in most cases, he could have held out against any commander of his age (save for perhaps his son Richard) – but here, in the twilight of his life, his strength had left him, and he was indeed forced to recognize Richard as his heir. Henry died a few months later, his ignoble end leading to the desertion of almost all of his followers – including John, who’s desertion is said to have pushed his father over the edge and into his final stupor.
Now out from behind his father’s shadow, he found himself instead behind that of his brother. The relationship between the two surviving brothers was complex – though Richard had actually chosen to reward those of his father’s followers that had not abandoned him, he made an exception when it came to John, bestowing him with lands and titles in England and Normandy – perhaps only to get him off of his back. Indeed, Richard exchanged these lands and titles for a promise that his brother would not enter England for three years – in theory, enough time for the king to conduct a crusade and return.
John, however, seemed to regard oaths like many do rules – they’re there to be broken. An opportunity to do so soon came – his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had convinced Richard to allow John into England, where he soon set himself up as a rival to the unpopular Justicar William Longchamp, managing to chase the latter from England in October of 1191. Though at first, he seemed content to be recognized as Richard’s heir, he soon became embroiled in an alliance with the newly-returned Philippe II, who helped him to rampage through Angevin lands while Richard was a captive of the Holy Roman Emperor – in fact, John and Philippe even offered to pay the emperor to hold Richard longer, though this was rejected.
Though Richard forgave John when he returned, he also confiscated all of his lands, save for his domains in Ireland – an act that was reversed a year later, after John had proved that he could faithfully serve his brother. Not much is said of John during the final years of Richard’s reign, perhaps because he was, in fact, loyally serving the king. For his part, Richard was doing his best to put together a massive alliance against Philippe, and though his death on 6 April 1199 stopped this, he did manage to hand his successor a strong alliance, including the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne and the new Holy Roman Emperor (Otto IV, a nephew to Richard and John through their sister, Matilda).
Though many were quick to acknowledge John as his brother’s heir, there was another claimant to the throne – his nephew (Geoffrey’s son) Arthur, Duke of Brittany. Though Richard had generally favored John as his heir, there was enough of a dissent to give the young Arthur support – support that included John’s one-time ally, Philippe. Those who had hoped to find a solution in the law were disappointed – though Norman law held that John was the rightful successor as the only surviving son of Henry II, Angevin law held that Arthur, as a son of John’s older brother, be given precedence. Lines were drawn, with the English and Norman nobles supporting John and the Breton, Maine and Angevin (used here to refer only to the county of Anjou) nobles supporting Arthur.
Though Arthur did Philippe fealty for all of the continent’s Angevin possessions, he was quickly abandoned by the French king, who recognized John in return for a dissolution of the alliance with Boulogne and Flanders. Arthur himself continued to revolt, even holding Eleanor as a hostage before he was captured in 1202 and eventually incarcerated at Rouen. Arthur disappears from the record after that, and the suspicion of his death (by some accounts, at the hands of John himself) would come back to haunt the king later on.
However, the peace would be short lived, reignited on the protests and claims of the Count of La Marche, Hugh de Lusignan. De Lusignan had been engaged to Isabella, the heiress of the county of Angoulême, but in 1200, John married her himself, throwing aside his first wife to do so. There are some who say that John did this out of love for the heiress, but this is debatable, as she was only 12 years old at the time (and while my relatively low opinion of John might suggest it, I wouldn’t even dream of believing him capable of that kind of depravity – though he was quite capable of many others) – it is more likely that he did so to strengthen his grip on Aquitaine by taking personal control of a county on its border.
Regardless of the reason, the de Lusignans objected to John’s own overlord, Philippe of France – who was only too happy to support the Poitevin barons. He summoned John to appear at his court and give an explanation of his actions, when John refused, Philippe held his French domains forfeit – and then backed it up. Invigorated by the support of some of the Angevin barons (and perhaps the fact that he was not facing a proven military talent such as Henry or Richard) moved to claim the lands for himself. Though John had a decisive victory at Mirabeau in 1202 (the battle in which he captured his nephew Arthur), his treatment of his prisoners (and his allies) led to a mass desertion from his banner. Because of this, John’s hold was weakened enough that by August of 1204, Philippe controlled Brittany, Anjou, Maine – and most importantly Normandy. Thus it was that in just five years, John’s scheming and mistreatment of his people lost him nearly half of the domains he had inherited – and in doing so, had strengthened the Capetians’ hold on France.
The loss of all of his overseas lands save for Aquitaine meant that for the first time since Stephen, England had a king who mostly stayed in England (though as John had apparently inherited his father’s restlessness, it was never in the same place for very long). This might have led to the vast improvements in law which occurred during his reign. Like his father, he had strengthened both the power of the courts and of local enforcers (including the infamous High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire). It is said that John fulfilled his duty to dispense justice with ardor and zeal, and in this, at least, history can find no fault.
However, his improvements to law were always balanced with the urge to reclaim the lands he had lost, specifically Normandy, that ancient bastion of English power. To this end, he prepared masterfully, breathing new life into the alliances that Richard had built, strengthening England against invasion, and, perhaps most importantly, the expansion of his power at sea. In military matters, he was well supplied with advisers, including the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal, and his half brother William Longspée, and he often thought in grand schemes and detailed plans. There was never any doubt of the planning of John’s campaigns – his failures always came from the fact that he could never follow through with them, partly due to his lack of military skill (in a strange note, his ability and zeal for battle was known to fluctuate, giving rise to the theory that the king might have been bipolar), and partly because they were so grandiose that they couldn’t possibly have been carried out in the 13th century.
Though John tried for a decade to reclaim the lands he had lost, he and his alliance were ultimately met with defeat at Bouvines in 1214, which established the Capetian kings as the continental power. His calls for almost continuous campaigning, coupled with other reasons – including a feud with the papacy over the Archbishop of Canterbury (leading to a papal interdict on England in 1208 and the king’s excommunication the next year), the suspicious circumstances over the death of his nephew in captivity (in reality, the poster for his treatment of both allies and enemies alike), and his supposed dalliances with various married noblewomen – led to an uprising in England in late 1214.
The scope of the rebellion was probably astonishing to John – only a few barons remained loyal, and he was eventually brought to the negotiating table the next year. The Archbishop of Canterbury had managed to broker a peace charter, which was authorized by John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Though the charter and its successors would be remembered by history as the great Magna Carta, in truth, nobody much expected the charter to hold. As they had been negotiating from a position of some power, it could be argued that the clauses of the first charter were too restrictive to the king. Indeed, John himself later decided that the charter was too demeaning, and called on the Pope to help him, leading to the rebels’ excommunications.
But where the revolts before Runnymede had been small scale, John’s reversal of stance now led to a full-blown civil war. Though they arguably had more power, the rebels were also in a relatively awkward position – while rebellions were somewhat common, for once, the rebels did not have a rival to claim John’s throne. Because of this, they enlisted the help of Louis, the son of Philippe (and nephew by marriage to John). A fleet sent by John to contest the invasion was scattered, and in May of 1216, a French prince landed on English soil – by the invitation of English barons.
Though John tried his best to campaign against Louis and the rebels, his strength finally failed him, and he died of dysentery on 18 October 1216. His heir was a nine year old boy, crowned as Henry III. But Henry’s inheritance was paltry: though he had Aquiatine, his father had lost the rest of his French possessions. He was king of England – but how long could a nine year old and his small band of supporters stand against rebels and a French prince? John’s death had managed to worsen an already perilous situation, and it would be up to those he left behind to try and solve it.
An overview of John shows that he was quite the enigma – fluid in his alliances, erratic in his urges, arguably atheistic – though he ran to the Pope when he needed help, and a lawgiver who is remembered not for the laws he bestowed, but for the one forced upon him. Despite his failings, he has his faithful supporters – which is almost funny, as ‘faithful’ does not seem to me to be a word that could describe him. For the most part, history and legend have been unkind to him, and while he certainly deserves some of it, I’m not convinced he deserves all of it. Like his older brother Hal, he might not have been suited for a throne – and when you look at it from that light, it’s much easier to see that perhaps he did the best that he could. The problem for England was that his best wasn’t often conducive to the ruling of an empire.