He started his career when he was appointed by his father Henry the Second to rule as Lord of Ireland. Henry had in fact attempted to make John King of Ireland, intending to divide the Angevin possessions between his four sons (John, as the youngest, was not expected to inherit England). However, Henry's quarrels with the Pope prevented this and John had to make do as a mere 'Lord'. He did a bad job (this is putting it very mildly; John certainly wasn't singlehandedly responsible for the roots of the Troubles, but he strengthened and expanded on the existing foundations in a remarkably short time by being a prime irritant in local affairs) and returned to England within a year, having antagonized many and run out of money. He later betrayed his father and joined his brother Richard the Lionheart in his rebellion. When Richard was held captive for 2 years in Austria, John declared himself king. When big brother came back, John begged for his life.
John became rightful king after the death of his brother. John was a superb statesman, but deficient in moral character, and incredibly piss-poor at planning and capitalizing on situations. This is reflected in the things for which he tends to be known: his early reign saw the loss of all Angevin holdings in France except Aquitaine, earning him the nicknames "Lackland" and "Softsword", and he got into a pissing match with Pope Innocent III over naming the Archbishop of Canterbury that resulted in him being excommunicated and England placed under interdict in 1208, which lasted until 1213 (to which he responded by seizing lands of church members who had fled England or remained loyal to Innocent, no doubt providing Henry VIII with some ideas for later). Despite this, he endeavored to rule as an autocrat, proceeding to extort taxes from the barons and attempt to maximize all sources of income for fruitless campaigns to reconquer Normandy. The defeat of Bouvines was the last straw: barons in turn rebelled and forced John to sign Magna Carta which put limits to his powers and, in consequence, the power of all future English monarchs.
John's extreme unpopularity led to a French prince, Louis — the future King Louis VIII of France — landing in England in 1215, being proclaimed king in London, and soon controlling over half the country. English history might have taken a very different turn if John hadn't chosen this moment of crisis to kick the bucket. He died of dysentery and most of him was buried in Worcester Cathedral. The monks of Craxton Abbey stole his entrails, making him, in death as in life, gutless. The English barons who were so tired of John shifted their support from Louis to John's nine-year-old son, Henry III, and the Plantagenet dynasty was preserved.
As you might have noticed, he has no number after his name. He's the only John to have ever ruled England. The name is so closely tied with his troubled reign that not a single one of his successors has ever been named or chosen to call himself John.
On another, more trivial note, every President of the United States is related to him, and all but Martin Van Buren are descendants of him (Van Buren was related to William the Conqueror, John's ancestor). That is, assuming you're confident in the genealogical skills of the 12-year-old who advanced this claim.
Appearances in popular culture
- Robin Hood: Every adaptation of the story has him as the Big Bad among the Sheriff of Nottingham, with the exception of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he does not appear at all.
- Robin Hood: The Disney version stars him as a prissy thumb-sucking villain.
- King John by William Shakespeare.
- The Lion in Winter
- Here Be Dragons by Sharon K. Penman tells the story of his daughter Joan, Lady of Wales, but John gets plenty of attention in the narrative, too.
Tropes associated to his portrayals:
- Adapted Out: His position of Lord of Ireland is never mentioned in the Robin Hood stories and its adaptations.
- Big Bad: John is the one to the Robin Hood tales, even though the earliest known versions of Robin Hood's legends seem to place Robin later in British history. The tales slowly slid backward in history until Ivanhoe, around which all modern tellings base themselves.
- Breakout Villain: He was not originally the main antagonist in the Robin Hood legend, but has been promoted to the role as the story evolved over time.
- Cain and Abel: With Richard.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Well, not without cause is he usually portrayed as this. Constancy was not one of John's best features.
- Dirty Coward: Is often portrayed as being one. Whether he actually was is a matter of debate.
- Evil Overlord: When not portrayed as an inept buffoon more Stupid Evil than anything else, he gets the Overlord treatment. And, there is enough there to blow him into that character type. In reality, he was actually pretty nifty with the broader theory and the nitty-gritty of the paperwork, but his impetuousness and interpersonal failings generally scuppered him — he did plan on becoming the most tyrannical ruler seen up to that point (again, Henry VIII took notes... and did it better), but he generally got himself into a mess by acting in too many of the wrong ways at the hideously wrong time, all while annoying the wrong people.
- Faux Affably Evil: Poor John never gets portrayed as just Affably Evil. He's always faking whatever charm the work rations him.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: His portrayals as a villain paints him as a far more evil and greedy person than actual historical accounts show. He wasn't particularly worse than his more favorably remembered brother, nor most of his successors.
- Momma's Boy: Works which portray him as spoiled and insipid generally also usually go on to lay the fault at his mother's feet. There's certainly enough evidence to paint him as Eleanor's favourite, but... how much he actually was is up for debate. The Lion in Winter, at least, paints him as his father's favorite, and gives the role of Momma's Boy to brother Richard.
- Royal Brat: Although he certainly was one of these, popular culture generally paints him as being quite a bit worse than he likely was. Having said that, the record is quite clear — he was an impetuous brat even after he supposedly grew up.