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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

King John of England


King John of England was born on December 24, 1167 at Beaumont Palace, which had been built outside the north gate of Oxford to serve as a royal palace conveniently close to the royal hunting-lodge at Woodstock.

John was born to Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Neither parent played a part in his very early life.

He was always his father's favorite son, though as the youngest, he could expect no inheritance (hence his nickname, "Lackland").

Henry II had at first intended that John receive an education to go into the Church, which would have meant Henry did not have to give him any land, but in 1171 Henry began negotiations to betroth John to Alais the daughter of Count Humbert III of Savoy. As part of this agreement John was promised the future inheritance of Savoy, Piedmont, Maurienne, and the other possessions of Count Humbert. After that, talk of making John a churchman ceased.

In  the 1968 movie Lion in Winter, Alais complains about the prospect of marrying 16-year-old John, saying, "He smells of compost."

Alais made the trip over the Alps and joined Henry II's court, but she died before marrying John, which left the prince once again without an inheritance.

John enjoyed reading and, unusually for the period, built up a travelling library of books. Some of the books the records show he read included: De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei by Hugh of St. Victor, Sentences by Peter Lombard, The Treatise of Origen, and a history of England—potentially Wace's Roman de Brut, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae.


After his brother Richard I's death there were two potential claimants to the Angevin throne: John, whose claim rested on being the sole surviving son of Henry II, and young Arthur of Brittany, who held a claim as the son of Geoffrey, John's elder brother. John was supported by the bulk of the English and Norman nobility and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on May 27, 1199, backed by his mother, Eleanor.

Many of his English subjects felt that Arthur was the rightful heir to the English throne. However, John had him killed and the prince's wife, Eleanor, the "Fair Maid of Brittany" locked up in Bristol Castle, then sent to a nunnery at Amesbury. She remained there until her death in 1241.

After usurping the throne following his brother's death, John realized he was unpopular among many. Concerned to gain his subject's affection he suggested a second coronation. According to Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, the Earl of Salisbury rejected this as utterly futile. To have another crowning would be like "painting the lily", which is where that phrase comes from.

King John once ordered his horsemen to ride down some Cistercian monks in Lincoln. Later the King had a dream ordering him to repent. As a result he gave 10,000 acres of New Forest land to the Cistercian monks at Beaulieu. This became Beaulieu Abbey.

13th-century depiction of John with two hunting dogs

King John refused to sanction the Pope Innocent III 's choice of Simon Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and expelled the Canterbury monks. In response, the pope suspended all public worship in England, which was a cause of tremendous grief for the pious peasants. The raging king retaliated by confiscating church property and giving the ecclesiastics an almost starvation allowance of food and clothing, leading to many churchmen fleeing abroad. He screamed that if he found any of the pope's clerks in England, he would send them home to Rome with their eyes torn out and their noses split that they might be known there from other people.

The consequence of the king's rage was that he was excommunicated. However, Innocent was concerned about the potential loss of faith so he allowed some English churches to privately hold Mass.

In 1213 King John, under attack from the Barons, agreed to surrender the Kingdom of England to God, received back England as a fief and pay the Pope a handsome annual tribute. In return England got its public worship and the sacraments back.

As far as the administration of his kingdom went, John functioned as an efficient ruler, but he won the disapproval of the English barons by taxing them in ways that were outside those traditionally allowed by feudal overlords. The tax known as scutage, a penalty for those who failed to supply military resources, became particularly unpopular.

In 1215, as a result of the King's demands for excessive feudal taxes, and attacks on the privileges of the church, the Barons forced him to seal the Magna Carta at Runnymede, a broad riverside meadow near Egham, Surrey. This charter gave the Barons more power and is the foundation of England's liberty.

The Magna Carta was basically a restatement of an earlier charter, the 1100 Charter of Liberties. It had 63 clauses including one that the King could not demand taxes without the great council's consent. Copies were sent to every shire. The King never actually signed the Magna Carta, (he just placed his seal on it).

In his own time, King John was known disparagingly as ‘Softsword’ for his shambolic military adventures.


John grew up to be around 5 ft 5 in (1.68 m) tall, plump, balding with a clump of curly dark red hair and a full beard. He was said to have possessed a menacing voice.

King John Wikipedia

In 1176, John's father disinherited the sisters of Isabella of Gloucester, contrary to legal custom, and betrothed John to the now extremely wealthy Isabella. (She is given several alternative names by history, including Isabelle, Hawise, Joan, and Eleanor.) They married on August 29, 1189 at Marlborough Castle, Wiltshire.

Their marriage was childless and Isabella would habitually lie in bed until noon reading romances. (John liked getting up late as well.)

When he found out Isabella had taken a lover, the king had him killed and his corpse strung up over Isabella’s side of the bed.

John had their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, some time before or shortly after his accession to the throne, and Isabella was never acknowledged as queen. (She then married Geoffrey de Mandeville as her second husband and Hubert de Burgh as her third).

On August 24, 1200 King John married Isabella of Angoulême, who was twenty years his junior, in Bordeaux Cathedral. Blonde and blue-eyed 12-year-old Isabella was already renowned by some for her beauty. John had kidnapped her from her fiancee, Hugh IX of Lusignan.

Isabella eventually produced five children, including two sons (Henry and Richard), Joan, Isabella and Eleanor.

In 1220, four years after John's death, Isabella married Hugh X of Lusignan, Count of La Marche, by whom she had another nine children.

Isabella died on June 4, 1246, having outlived her royal husband by 30 years.

Isabella of Angoulême, tomb in the church of Fontevraud Abbey (France)

John is given a great talent for lechery by the chroniclers of his age, and even allowing some embellishment, he did have many illegitimate children.


King John was the first English monarch to have a dressing gown.

King John dressed very well in coats made of fur from sable and ermine and other exotic furs such as polar bear.

According to records of payment made to King John's bath attendant, William Aquarius, the king bathed on average about once every three weeks, which cost a considerable sum of 5d to 6d each, suggesting an elaborate and ceremonial affair. Although this may seem barbaric by modern standards, it was civilized compared to monks who were expected to bathe three times a year, with the right not to bathe at all if they so chose.

John owned 72 castles and a dozen hunting lodges, including a royal castle at Rochester.

King John of England, Illuminated manuscript, De Rege Johanne, 1300-1400 {{PD-US}} 

He employed a Royal Head Holder to counter seasickness. Whenever the king took to sea, his servant Solomon Attefeld was on hand to hold the royal head steady.


The English king enjoyed hunting in the New Forest. John was the first monarch to keep racing horses in his stables.

He traveled unceasingly between his castles and hunting lodges, accompanied by among others several hundred hunting dogs and an officer charged with drying his wet clothes.

King John, finding insufficient game for his personal falconry, issued a proclamation in 1209 forbidding the taking of wild fowl by any means.

King John treasured greyhounds so much that he gladly accepted them instead of money for the payment of fines or the renewal of grants.

He enjoyed gambling, in particular at backgammon.


John lost his treasure whilst fording the Crosskeys Wash in Lincolnshire on October 12, 1216. Among the items lost were his crown and baggage, 52 rings encrusted with rubies and sapphires, 132 silver cups, and plenty of swords and trinkets.

Shortly after losing his treasure, John died at Trent Castle, Newark in the early hours of October 19, 1216 of dysentery, possibly after eating too much. According to some accounts the town’s folk of Lynn in Norfolk were so delighted at being awarded a handsome contract by the king, that they laid on a sumptuous feat in his honor, they rounded it off with his favorite dessert, peaches in cider. But he ate too much, suffered violent stomach pains and died a few days later.

John's body was escorted south by a company of mercenaries and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral in front of the altar of St Wulfstan.

He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry. As a result of John losing his crown, Henry III had to be crowned with his mother's bracelet.

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