A Brief Biography of King John

By Tim Lambert

His Early Life

King John was born in December 1166 or 1167. John was a younger son of Henry II and he was not expected to become king. His father conquered Ireland and in 1185 John was sent to that country. The expedition was a failure and John returned to England in December. It was an inauspicious start.

Henry II died in 1189 and John’s older brother became King Richard I. King Richard was killed in 1199 and his brother John became king of England.

As king of England, John proved to be a failure. Between 1202 and 1204 the king of France managed to capture most of the lands in France held by John. Afterward, John was given the nickname Soft Sword.

Furthermore, in 1205 King John began an argument with the Pope over who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John’s choice or the Pope’s. As a result in 1208, the Pope placed England under an interdict, which meant that religious services could not be held. In 1209 he excommunicated King John. Finally, in 1213, John was forced to submit.

Magna Carta

Meanwhile, King John alienated many of his subjects. They claimed that he ruled like a tyrant ignoring feudal law. He was accused of extorting money from people, selling offices, increasing taxes, and creating new ones whenever he wished. Matters came to a head after John tried to recapture his lost lands in France in 1214 but failed. The baron’s patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke out. On 15 June 1215 King John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta at Runnymede.

The charter was meant to stop the abuses. It stated that the traditional rights and privileges of the church must be upheld. It also protected the rights and privileges of the aristocracy. Merchants who lived in towns were also mentioned. However ordinary people were overlooked.

However, the Magna Carta did uphold an important principle. English kings could not rule arbitrarily. They had to obey English laws and English customs the same as other men. Furthermore, the Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned, or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or due process of law.

However, King John had no intention of keeping the terms of the Magna Carta so he appealed to the Pope. On 24 August 1215, the Pope declared the Magna Carta was invalid. The result was a civil war. Some barons invited a French prince to come and rule England.

However, John conveniently died in October 1216. King John was buried in Worcester Cathedral. After his death, the Magna Carta was reissued.

However, King John did achieve something during his reign. He founded the port of Liverpool. King John also granted a charter to Bridgwater in Somerset.

King John was married twice. In 1189 he married Isabella of Gloucester. They had no children and the marriage was annulled because the two of them were too closely related. In 1200 John married another woman named Isabella of Angouleme and they had 5 children one of whom became King Henry III.

William Shakespeare wrote a play about King John in c 1596-97.