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King of England, 1199-1216, who was forced to sign a document declaring that the king had to obey the law just like any other person
John was born on December 24, 1167, the youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As the youngest son, John was not entitled to inherit any land, which led to him being nicknamed "John Lackland." In 1173, King Henry arranged for John to marry the daughter of Humbert III, Count of Maurienne (Savoy), so that John would have his own domain to rule. His older brothers disapproved, however, and staged a rebellion, forcing Henry to end negotiations and the marriage. John eventually married Isabel of Gloucester; the marriage lasted ten years, but produced no children. He subsequently married Isabella of Angouleme, with whom he had two sons and three daughters. John also had numerous affairs, one of which resulted in the birth of Joan, who grew up to marry Llwelyn the Great, from whom the Tudor line descended.
John's oldest surviving brother, Richard, became king upon the death of their father in 1189, and John was made Count of Mortain (France). When Richard refused to honor their father's wishes and surrender Aquitaine to him as well, John staged a rebellion. The rebellion failed, and John lost all potential claims to lands in France.
His Reign as King
John claimed the crown upon the death of King Richard, on April 6, 1199, and was crowned on May 27, 1199. His reign was troubled from the beginning, since he had usurped the legitimate claim of his brother's oldest son, Arthur. Many of the French barons turned against him after Arthur was killed while trying to claim Normandy, and King Philip Augustus of France ultimately declared war on England. Defeated by the French in 1205, John lost all of England's holdings in France except Aquitaine. Although the loss of territory was a great blow to England and led to discontent amongst the English nobility, it was about this time that English lords began seeing England as a distinct country and themselves as different from the French, and English became the standard language of Britain (prior to this virtually all English lords spoke French).
King John's refusal to install Stephen Langdon as Archbishop of Canterbury led Pope Innocent III to issue an interdict banning church services in England, in 1208, and to John's excommunication the following year. The conflict was resolved only after the king surrendered to the Pope's wishes and paid tribute to the Vatican. Not surprisingly, this chain of events added fuel to the fires of discontent that had been started when John assumed the crown. Those fires were further fueled by the king's habit of selling royal positions to the highest bidders, the increasing of taxes without obtaining the consent of the barons, and his arbitrary rulings in legal cases. In 1213, a group of barons and church leaders met at St. Albans, near London, and drew up a list of rights they wanted the king to grant them. When King John refused the demands, the discontent erupted into open rebellion.
After a series of defeats at the hands of his own noble subordinates, King John was finally forced to surrender at Runnymede and sign what is now known as the Magna Carta, on June 15, 1215. Officially known as the "Article of the Barons," the document declared that the king had to obey the law just like any other person, and that if he broke the law the lords had the right to remove him as king and choose a new one. A Council of Barons was formed, which had veto power over the king's decisions. The Magna Carta laid the foundation of the constitutional monarchy system that now governs Great Britain, and provided the basis of the Constitution of the United States.
A few months after signing the Magna Carta, King John tried to circumvent the Council of the King and once again found himself fighting against his barons, who were aided by Prince Louis of France. Just as the barons were on the verge of victory, John managed to pen them in London and the surrounding countryside. He died before he could end the rebellion, however, on October 18 (or 19), 1216. He was ultimately succeeded by his son, who became King Henry III.
This page was last updated on March 25, 2017.