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Useful Notes / King John of England

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"We owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns."

John, of The House of Plantagenet, was king of England (24 December 1166 – 19 October 1216). Ordinary folks remember him as "Prince" John and as a villain of the Robin Hood stories.

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 (the previous intended king, Henry's brother, having since died), 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 of what would morph into The Irish Question 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 had the brains to be a superb statesman, but a lousy personality: a deficient moral character, his piss-poor ability to lay out long-term plans, and an incredible talent for making bad decisions led to him scoring multiple own goals domestically and abroad. 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 his mother's duchy, 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 attempted 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 on 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 Roman numeral 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. It almost happened, though; his grandson Edward I named his eldest son John, but the boy died young. That said, it is not true that "John" is considered a cursed name for British royals; besides Edward, a few other royals have given the name to their children, albeit admittedly never their senior son and heir.note  On the other hand, it is significant that when the future Charles III's first son was born, the Princess of Wales's suggestion to call the new second-in-line "John" (after her father, the 8th Earl Spencer) was rejected basically because nobody else in the Royal Family wanted to be responsible for a King John II. (The boy was eventually named William, after his father's suggestion of "Arthur" was also shot down.)

Appearances in popular culture

Tropes associated to his portrayals:

  • Adapted Out: His position of Lord of Ireland is never mentioned in the Robin Hood stories and its adaptations. Likewise his first wife Countess Isabella of Gloucester has only been portrayed once. His own later, legitimate reign, is very rarely adapted, with most works focusing instead on his tenure as a usurper to his brother's throne. Ironically, much of the problems with John's rule in adaptations are things that he wouldn't be personally responsible for until his time as king, making it something of an Anachronism Stew.
  • Anachronism Stew: He was never called "Prince" John in life; his title would be "Lord John" until he became king. There's also, as noted above, the fact he was largely not responsible for much of the issues plaguing England during the tenure he reigned in his brother's steed, as the taxes were largely to fund Richard's crusade and later to pay for his ransom, and it was Richard who had given titles and authority (such as Sheriffdoms) out like candy to anyone who paid for them. During his own, legitimate rule, however, he was as bad as he's depicted as, if not worse (adaptations rarely bring up he was a rapist with a preference for women as young as 12, or an abusive husband), so it's a case of transplanting his actions as king to his tenure as prince.
  • 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 or earlier in British history, the use of "King Edward" makes it rather ambiguous. The tales slowly slid backward/forward in history until Ivanhoe, around which most modern tellings base themselves. There has been a case of the role being played by William the Conqueror and another where it was William II rather than John.
  • Bookworm: He reportedly loved to read and had libraries of books he would travel with.
  • 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. This is doubtful in real life, as John's second son from wedlock bore the name Richard meaning there must have not even been that much animosity between the two. John did have a track record of trying to usurp Richard's throne, but Richard tended to forgive him on the basis of him being younger and Richard spent a decent amount of his time rebelling against their father, so he may not have wanted to cast stones in his very transparently glass house.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Well, not without cause is he usually portrayed as this. Constancy was not one of John's best features. It is the subject of a surviving letter from his mother, where she explicitly explains that she just got a visit from the only Aquitanian vassal who didn't rebel against him, and John should really cultivate this potential ally, but...
  • Dirty Coward: He's often portrayed as being one. Whether he actually was is a matter of debate.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: His father jokingly called him "John Lackland" since, as a fifth born son, he wasn't expected to inherit any territories.
  • 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.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: He was known for having a terrible temper, which is one of the reasons he was such a shit king. He kept petty grudges and started wars over perceived slights, never mind he reportedly treated his favourites as terribly as he did those he didn't care about.
  • 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, but he lacked the positive qualities (his father's political acumen and his brother's military prowess) to make his awful personality less memorable. His reputation as a usurper is also overstated; the line of royal succession had yet to be firmly codified and his claim to the throne was similar in strength to that of his nephew Arthur I, Duke of Brittany. Who was the "correct" heir to Richard I was dependent on which legal tradition (Angevin or Norman) is favored, and there's at least some evidence that toward the end of his life Richard's preference shifted from Arthur to John.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: On the contrast, however, adaptations will rarely go into some of John's worst actions and traits. He was an abusive husband to both his wives (and his second wife was barely a child, aged somewhere between 12 and 15 when they got married), he ordered the death of his young nephew Arthur and made Arthur's sister a prisoner-for-life simply because they were challengers to his claim on the throne, he abused the "divine right" of kings to excuse doing pretty much anything he wanted, and it was known this included regularly raping the daughters of his barons (and his refusal to stop doing this is directly one of the reasons the First Barons War started, allegedly anyway). It's not so much that John was less villainous than his adaptational counterparts, it's just that, in reality, most kings (including his brother Richard) were more morally grey human beings who get Historical Hero Upgrade treatment, making John's writing look unfair by contrast.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: He had his nephew Arthur of Brittany killed to keep him from challenging John's claim to the throne. Philip II of France capitalized on this and made a habit of demanding that John produce Arthur as a prelude to negotiations.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: One of the main reasons he became so reviled and was eventually rebelled against. In order to pay for the armies needed to retake his lost French territories, John levied obscenely high taxes onto England's nobility and its Jewish population, none of whom would have benefited in any way even if John's attempted conquests had been successful. John also reportedly wanted to squeeze the nobles dry to try and control them through their debts to the Crown. A few of John's taxes included heavy taxes on all land, castles, inheritances and noble titles, taxes to avoid mandatory military conscription and taxes on widows to avoid being forcibly remarried.
  • 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. Richard is traditionally held to be Eleanor's favorite child (as second surviving son, he was heir to her duchy for his early life, not his father's holdings), but when Richard died, Eleanor strongly supported John inheriting the empire over the son of his deceased older brother, and personally secured Aquitaine for him by doling out forty charters' worth of favors and privileges and doing homage to the king of Francenote  and then officially designating John as her next heir. John in turn did homage to Eleanor, declaring her authority over him and all of his lands as his liege-lady, and she pledged her vassals' loyalty to him as their own liege-lord. It is worth noting that while John lost his father's French lands in Normandy, Anjou, and Maine, he did manage to hold onto Gascony, part of Eleanor's demesne. The Lion in Winter, at least, paints him as his father's favorite, and gives the role of Momma's Boy to Richard - a fact he bemoans in his Walt Disney incarnation.
    Mother always did like Richard best.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Outside of fiction, John is generally remembered for one of two things—destroying the Angevin empire that his father built, and getting rebelled against and forced to sign Magna Carta for pissing off almost all the barons.
  • Parental Favoritism: Contemporary observers believed him to be Henry II's favorite child, with his father repeatedly working to create some kind of inheritance for his youngest son at the expense of various nobles. He also wanted to make John the King of Ireland but the Pope wouldn't allow it.
  • Really Gets Around: In real life he sired between ten and twelve illegitimate children.
  • 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.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Ultimately, John did become king upon the death of his eldest brother Richard, although whether that could be considered "winning"—either for John or the country—is debatable, since he's now primarily known as a villain whose reign effectively ended the Angevin Empire.note