King John was born on December 24, 1166 at Beaumont Palace, Oxford. John was nicknamed Lackland, probably because, as the youngest of Henry II's five sons, it was difficult to find a portion of his father's French possessions for him to inherit. He was acting king from 1189 during his brother Richard the Lion-Heart's absence on the Third Crusade. The legend of Robin Hood dates from this time in which John is portrayed as Bad King John. He was involved in intrigues against his absent brother, but became king in 1199 when Richard was killed in battle in France.
Most of his reign was dominated by war with France. Following the peace treaty of Le Goulet there was a brief peace, but fighting resumed again in 1202. John had lost Normandy and almost all the other English possessions in France to Philip II of France by 1204. He spent the next decade trying to regain these without success and was finally defeated by Philip Augustus at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. He was also in conflict with the Church. In 1205 he disputed the pope's choice of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Innocent III placed England under an interdict, suspending all religious services, including baptisms, marriages, and burials. John retaliated by seizing church revenues, and in 1209 was excommunicated. Eventually, John submitted, accepting the papal nominee, and agreed to hold the kingdom as a fief of the papacy; an annual monetary tribute was paid to the popes for the next 150 years by successive English monarchs.
His repressive policies and ruthless taxation to fund the war in France brought him into conflict with his barons which became known as the Barons War. In 1215 rebel baron leaders marched on London where they were welcomed by an increasing band of defectors from John’s royalist supporters. Their demands were drawn up in a document which became the known as the Magna Carta. John sort peace and met them at Runnymede where on 15th June 1215 he agreed to their demands and sealed the Magna Carta. It was a remarkable document which set limits on the powers of the king, laid out the feudal obligations of the barons, confirmed the liberties of the Church, and granted rights to all freemen of the realm and their heirs for ever. It was the first written constitution. His concessions did not buy peace for long and the Barons War continued. The barons sought French aid and Prince Louis of France landed in England supported by attacks from the North by Alexander II of Scotland. John fled and according to legend lost most of his baggage and the crown jewels when crossing the tidal estuaries of the Wash. He became ill with dysentery and died at Newark Castle in October 1216.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Great Britain’s Royal Tombs: A Guide to the Lives and Burial Places of British Monarchs, the book can be purchased at Amazon and Barnes and Noble through the following links: