Picture: King John signing the Magna Charta.
John was born on Christmas Eve 1167. His parents drifted apart after his birth and his childhood was divided between his eldest brother Henry's house where he learned the art of knighthood and the house of his father's justiciar, Ranulf Glanvil, where he learned the business of government. As the fourth child, inherited lands were not available to him and this gave rise to his nickname Lackland. His first marriage to Isabella of Gloucester lasted only ten years and was fruitless but his second wife, Isabella of Angouleme, bore him two sons and three daughters one of whom was called Joan, she married Alexander II King of Scotland who was the son of King William I "the Lion."
John was sent to Ireland as governor but had to be recalled on account of his insolence to the Irish chiefs but despite this Henry II made provisions for his youngest son and when his older brother Richard became king in July 1189 he carried out their fathers wishes. John was made Count of Mortain, which placed him amongst the higher ranks of the Norman barons, but this did not provide him with much income so Richard arranged for John to marry the great heiress, Isabella of Gloucester. She brought with her the Earldom of Gloucester, which made John one of the greatest barons in England and gave him a substantial income. However, there was to be more. John was also granted the honours of Peveril (Derbyshire), Tickhill and Lancaster, two manors in Suffolk, land in Northamptonshire, the profits of Sherwood Forest and the Forest of Andover in Wiltshire. Then, before the end of the year he received the counties of Nottingham, Derby, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with the vill of Nottingham and its honour. Richard's grants to John virtually created a kingdom within a kingdom and it was hoped that this would satisfy John and keep him quiet when Richard left on crusade.
While Richard was out of the country on Crusade and in prison in the Holy Land, William Brewer the great Judge who was the Regent of King Richard I and a sheriff of Nottingham obtained for himself a farm in the Royal Forest of the Peak. Quoting from the history of the Peak, "It would seem also that there was a settled conviction or design known to King John and his friends that King Richard should be kept in prison, for if there had been any idea that the King was going to be released William Brewer would not have dared to take such a property to himself, especially in the time of such a monarch as Richard I." Such was John's loyalty to his brother.
In 1199AD when Richard Lionhearted died, John claimed the dukedom of Normandy and then the crown of England. The only possible challange to John was his nephew Arthur who was the prince of Brittany. The French chose Arthur and England chose John. The northern provinces of France now felt a unity with the kingdom of France rather than England. When John returned to France and found that his lands had been given to Arthur he immediately declared war on Arthur and surprised him at Mirebeau. Arthur died while being held prisoner by John in 1203AD and it is suspected that he was murdered on the orders of his uncle John. The Bretons were outraged by the murder of their duke and the French united against John who was forced to return to England at the end of 1203 allowing Philip to claim all his French territories. The death of his mother in 1204 removed the last restraining influence on his crimes and follies and within a year John had lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. Gradually his subjects became more and more disaffected by his rule.
When Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury died The Pope chose Cardinal Stephen Langton to replace him but King John objected to The Popes nomination and seized Church lands. Then in 1208AD The Pope put England under an "Interdict," meaning that all churches were kept locked and no services were held except for the baptism of infants and confession for the dying, then two years later The Pope excommunicated King John. The issue was not resolved until 1213AD when John learning that the Pope had given the French King the authority to remove him by force surrendered to the wishes of Pope Innocent III and accepted Langton as the new archbishop of Canterbury. He then had to pay homage to The Pope acknowledging himself as the Pope’s vassal (tenant) and pay the Pope a yearly tribute.
His tyranny at home continued and his defeat at Bouvines (1214) and the loss of Poitou stirred the barons to revolt. They mustered a powerful force, and led by the Archbishop Stephen Langton they marched against the king demanding a charter of liberties. John met the barons at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 and put the royal seal upon the Magna Charta. It is said that when King John granted the Great Charter, he smiled and spoke pleasantly to the lords about him, but when he reached his own chamber he threw himself on the floor in a mad rage, gnashing his teeth and biting the rushes with which the floor was strewn. He had no intention of keeping his promises and induced the Pope to annul the charter. The barons, as a last resort, appealed to Philip of France and in despair they offered the crown of England to Louis, the son of the French King who was married to John's niece, giving him some kind of claim. Louis invaded England in 1216. His fleet under the command of the pirate Eustace the Monk was almost as large as the Conqueror’s and the army was considerably larger.
He landed unopposed and within two weeks of landing Louis had joined the English barons at London and on June 2nd the new ruler was welcomed with a magnificent Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral where he was hailed as king. He received the homage of the citizens of London and of most of the English barons also the Welsh nobles and the King of Scotland, Alexander II, who captured Carlisle and then made the hazardous journey south to render homage to the prince whom he found engaged in besieging Dover. King John withdrew to Winchester. The presence of the prince in England had an immediate effect. Castles were surrendered, there were many desertions and several of the earls including John's half-brother the earl of Salisbury changed sides. Louis ruled much of England with his own chancellor (the brother of Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury) and he made Gilbert de Gaunt the Earl of Lincoln. Driven from Winchester King John moved westward to the coast and mainly at Corfe he spent a month planning and organising his defences and in September he set out on his last campaign.
Picture: The King John Cup, believed to be part of the King’s
lost treasure. The cup is now in the Guildhall at King’s Lynn.
At John's approach Gilbert de Gaunt abandoned Lincoln and on the on 9th October King John crossed from Lincolnshire to Kings Lynn where he became ill through over-eating either peaches or eels and drinking a new kind of beer. King John had been covering thirty, forty and even fifty miles a day on horseback and had been attending to the business of government before he slept. Deciding to return into Lincolnshire, he and his army went the long way round by way of Wisbech, while his baggage train went by the more direct but extremely hazardous route, possible only at low tide and with the help of local guides across the four-and-a-half-mile-wide estuary of the Wellstreem (now known as the River Nene but better known as "The Wash") between Cross Keys and Long Sutton. The journey was never accomplished and the whole convoy, horses and wagons loaded with stores and equipment, with the kings treasure and wardrobe, with his chapel and relics, and with all the paraphernalia that accompanied a medieval king on his travels was either swept away by the incoming tide or swallowed up in the treacherous quicksand’s, was lost in its entirety. Not a man it is said lived to tell the tale.
On the evening of the disaster, the news of which was said to have aggravated his fever, the king reached the Cistercian abbey of Swineshead in Lincolnshire on the 12th October and after short rests he pushed on again for Newark where he arrived on the 16th October. On the last stage of the journey he was too weak to ride and had to be borne on a litter. There in the castle, the Abbott of Croxton attended him for his spiritual and physical needs. He died 18th October 1216. Though worn out in body he remained lucid in mind and planed for the safety of his kingdom and heir after his death. He was buried, as he had desired near the shrine of his favourite, his patron saint St. Wulfstan, at Worchester where his memory was kept afresh by the observance of an annual fast. In some circles at least his name was remembered with respect.
When King John died the French were in possession of southern England and the barons were in revolt in the North of England. That left Louis as the only king in England. John had a nine-year-old son, the future Henry III. He was taken to Gloucester, where a few barons who had remained loyal to John found a circlet of gold, which they placed on the boy’s head, and the bishop of Winchester pronounced him King of England.
His most well known act of cruelty was when he starved the wife and son of William of Braose to death in a dungeon at Windsor Castle, but it is thought his cruelty was much exaggerated by Wendover and later writers, although he did regard the maintenance of peace as a high priority and he would strike hard at those who sought to break it. He had a fondness for reading and even in the critical year of 1203, when he should have been wholly absorbed in public affairs, he had his library sent across to him in Normandy while at the same time attending assiduously to the business of government both at home and abroad. Although malicious backbiters gave him the name “softsword,” this name we are told turned to such hardness as none of his predecessors could equal. Certainly no medieval English king dealt more successfully with the Welsh, the Scots, or the Irish.
John was fastidious about personal cleanliness and arranged for a bath to be prepared for him in the towns through which he passed. For each bath he paid William, his bath-man a few pence in addition to his normal wage of half a penny a day. He even possessed a dressing gown. For Christmas dinner at Winchester in 1216 he ordered 1,500 chickens, 5,000 eggs, 20 oxen, 100 pigs, and 100 sheep. He spent a lot on clothes and on gold ornament and he had an immense collection of jewels. He was fond of gaming, although he played with little skill and he generally lost money to his opponent in the course of an evening.
(The ability to stage a large banquet was a symbol of power and wealth.)
He was self-indulgent in other ways and would habitually break the rules prescribed by the church, though he would readily perform the necessary penance to atone for the necessary indiscretion. Thus he gave alms to a hundred paupers “because he ate twice on Friday on the eve of St. Mark” or again he fed a hundred paupers “because he went fishing at Marlborough on the feast of St. Leonard.” His alms giving however was not confined to atonement for sins committed. He would provide food and drink for large numbers of the poor without any ulterior motive and would give liberal sick-benefit for his servants when they were ill and unable to work and he rarely forgot service loyally given. He was not ungenerous, and gave freely if indiscriminately for charitable purposes. The foundation of Beaulieu abbey stands to his credit; he dolled out small sums to religious houses, particularly to small nunneries; he made gifts of vestments and alter cloths. These facts suggest that he was not altogether out of sympathy with the church and religious life. It was not pure formality that Chaplins at Chichester said masses for the soul of King John “of blessed memory,” or that his obit was strictly observed at Worchester. (Obit: anniversary service for the soul of the deceased on the day of his death.) Yet he was extortionate and wrung enormous sums of money from his subjects.
Near to Loxley in the “Royal Forest of the Peak” we see King John acting illegally by misappropriating property.
(1) "He granted the Church of Hope with its chapel of Tideswell to Hugh, Bishop of Coventry. That brought as a consequence a litigation extending over three centuries between various claimants and produced many riots and some blood-shedding lamentable to record. Possibly this grant was only confined to the Churches.
(2) King John improperly gave the Manor of Tideswell (as if it was his own estate) to 'Thomas his Esquire, whose history is unknown. It would appear that he endeavoured to cover this illegality by various charters relating to Tideswell treating it as an escheat of the Crown upon the forfeiture of Wm. Peveril, as his father had improperly done before him.”
Of course, the true ground of these disputes was that King John, as usual, had acted in an arbitrary and illegal manner without respect to the right of those already in possession.
In 1797 his tomb was opened and the following eyewitness account is preserved among the Gough MSS f339. “The venerable Shrine of this Monarch was opened on Monday last in consequence of a general reparation of the Cathedral Church at Worchester. The remains of the Illustrious Personage appears entire, his robes, in which he was interred, they are un-decayed, but the colour through length of time is indiscernible; on one side of him lay a sword, the bones of his left arm lying on his breast, his teeth quite perfect, his feet stood erect, the coffin which is of stone, lay even to the floor of the church; his remains measured five Feet, five Inches being his stature when living.”
An account of the opening of the tomb was also printed by Valentine Green in 1797 in which she mentions that he wore a monk’s cowl. See also the British Register, iv (1797), 79.
King John hunted in the Royal Forest of the Peak and Peveril Castle came into his possession which he used as a hunting lodge as did other kings. Tickhill Castle on the Great North Road between Loxley and Barnsdale also belonged to King John who visited the then small village of Sheffield in 1215AD. To illustrate what King John was like as a person we have the de Lovetot family who were the Lords of Sheffield and Hallamshire. When the last of the de Lovetots died there was no son in direct line of succession and in 1181AD their vast estates passed to their only daughter Maud who was just seven years old when her father died. Being a great heiress she became ward of King Henry II, who according to the law of the times had the right to choose her husband. As she was a child Henry put off the selection of her husband who should with her jointly inherit her great possessions and by the time Maud was grown up Henry’s son Richard the Lionhearted was King of England and as her guardian he bestowed her hand on Gerard de Furnival the son of a Norman knight who had been one of the king’s companions in the Crusades. While Maud was the ward of the King her lands became the property of the crown and for young Furnival to marry his bride he had to pay a fee of 400 silver marks. By now Richard had died and the fee was payable to King John who was accompanied on the trip to Marabeau by young de Furnival. In the battle Prince Arthur was taken captive and later killed and in the same battle de Furnival captured a French knight and handed him over to the King in payment of his homage-fee. In those days a knight who was captured in battle had to be ransomed at a price agreed upon, otherwise he was left in prison. In Ivanhoe we read that the band of outlaws under Robin Hood required 600 silver marks as ransom of a wealthy prior and 500 for a rich Jew. So we can understand that fee of 400 silver marks would be fully discharged by the knight’s ransom. All the de Lovetot family however did not agree to the estates passing into the hands of the de Furnivals and one of her cousins claimed the estates. This was the kind of dispute that suited King John very well as he was glad of an excuse for exhorting money from anyone. So he settled the disagreement in favour of de Furnival for a further payment of £1,000 and fifteen riding horses.
KING JOHN'S EXTENDED FAMILY
In 1189, John was married to Isabel of Gloucester, daughter and heiress of William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester (she is given several alternative names by history, including Avisa, Hawise, Joan, and Eleanor). They had no children, and John had their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, some time before or shortly after his accession to the throne, which took place on 6 April 1199, and she was never acknowledged as queen. (She then married Geoffrey de Mandeville as her second husband and Hubert de Burgh as her third).
John remarried, on 24 August 1200, Isabella of Angoulême, who was twenty years his junior. She was the daughter of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angouleme. John had kidnapped her from her fiancé, Hugh X of Lusignan. Isabelle eventually produced five children, including two sons (Henry and Richard), and three daughters (Joan, Isabella and Eleanor).
John is given a great taste for lechery by the chroniclers of his age, and even allowing some embellishment, he did have many illegitimate children. Matthew Paris accuses him of being envious of many of his barons and kinsfolk, and seducing their more attractive daughters and sisters. Roger of Wendover describes an incident that occurred when John became enamoured with Margaret, the wife of Eustace de Vesci and an illegitimate daughter of King William I of Scotland. Eustace substituted a prostitute in her place when the king came to Margaret's bed in the dark of night; the next morning, when John boasted to Vesci of how good his wife was in bed, Vesci confessed and fled.
John had the following illegitimate children: Joan, the wife of Llywelyn Fawr, (by a woman named Clemence)
Richard Fitz Roy, (by his cousin, Adela, daughter of his uncle Hamelin de Warenne)
Oliver FitzRoy, (by mistress named Hawise) who accompanied the papal legate Pelayo to Damietta in 1218, and never returned.
By an unknown mistress (or mistresses) John fathered: Geoffrey FitzRoy, who went on expedition to Poitou in 1205 and died there.
John FitzRoy, a clerk in 1201.
Henry FitzRoy, who died in 1245.
Osbert Gifford, who was given lands in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex, and is last seen alive in 1216.
Eudes FitzRoy, who accompanied his half-brother Richard on Crusade and died in the Holy Land in 1241.
Bartholomew FitzRoy, a member of the order of Friars Preachers.
Maud FitzRoy, Abbess of Barking, who died in 1252.
Isabel FitzRoy, wife of Richard Fitz Ives.
Philip FitzRoy, found living in 1263. (The surname of FitzRoy is Norman-French for son of the king.)