King John - one of history's greatest villains?

Written by Chris Riley.

King John of England has gone down in history as one of, if not the worst ruler in history. A cruel, cowardly man who exploited his people and the church for money. The terrible reign of John would lead to the signing of Magna Carta, a now world-famous document but, how did it happen?


Big shoes to fill

King John (24 December 1166 – 19 October 1216) had inherited the crown after the untimely death of his brother Richard in 1199. Richard, known to history as ‘Coeur de Lion’ or in English, ‘Lionheart’ was known for his great military exploits in both the third crusade (1189-1192) and back in Normandy and Poitiers, where he spent much of his later life putting down rebellions and fighting the French.

Portrait of King John, unknown artist c.1620 SOURCE:

Richard was the 12th century poster boy of Christian warrior kings, a stark contrast to his younger brother who was small, timid and a cowardly runt. John had always been a favourite of his late father, King Henry II but once Richard became king, John began to cause problems for his brother. Even though Richard had asked John, in around about way “do not come to England, you’re not even my heir and, you’ll just cause trouble” in 1189, John came to England and started to cause trouble. Falling out with his brother’s Justiciar William Longchamp, going as far as creating an alternative royal court, with himself at the centre, John caused armed rebellions in London and the south. John continued to take advantage of his absent brother, only being stopped from going into a full Alliance with the French King Philip II Augustus, by his aged mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spent her later years stopping her sons from destroying the vast empire, she and her late husband, Henry II had created. John was a notorious womaniser who prayed on the wives of his lords, flaunting his adulterous behaviour at court, upsetting both the affected lords and, the Church, not a great start.

19th-century portrait of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel SOURCE:

Once his brother had died, after a crossbow injury turned gangrenous, John wasted little time having himself declared king, over the other potential heir, Arthur of Brittany, a nephew of John’s. John and Arthur went to war over the lands held on the continent with John, Obtaining the majority of support, beat his nephew. By 1202, John had captured his nephew and had him imprisoned. John decided that prison wasn’t bad enough and ordered the Justiciar of England, Hubert De Burgh, to blind and castrate him. Like most reasonable people, this didn’t strike Hubert as a great idea and he utterly refused. This upset John and the rumours go that he had Arthur drowned in the Seine but, regardless of whether that is true, Arthur disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.


The loss of Normandy

Already known as a truly terrible man, John set about damaging his reputation even further by marrying the twelve year old Isabella of Angoulême, the French Granddaughter of Louis VII, who was already betrothed to the powerful French noble, Hugh de Lusignan. Both the apparent murder of his nephew and, the marriage to Isabella infuriated his French counterpart Philip who, in 1203, ordered that John go to the French court to explain his actions. John refused to meet the French king which led to Philip claiming overall sovereignty over john’s continental lands. Over the next three years, John lost control over Anjou, parts of Poitou and, eventually with the fall of Château Gaillard, Normandy. John’s complete inability to lead an army saw little resistance to the French onslaught through John’s continental possessions.

Wanting his French positions back, John simply taxed the English people heavily in order to finance a large army to meet Phillip in the field. The new taxes made John even more unpopular and he ultimately failed to retake his lands, Kick starting a chain reaction that sent John plummeting towards catastrophe.



Whilst being a feckless military leader, John also was a pretty terrible Christian. As king, one of John’s first jobs was to protect the Church and not exploit it, two things he failed to do. Choosing to leave vacant Church positions open, so he could claim the income for himself. This meant he wasn’t popular with the leading church men in England but, most importantly, the Pope in Rome. His apparent blasphemy and constant affairs with the wives and daughters of his lords, gained him a bad reputation, which wasn’t helped by the heavy taxes he burdened the church with - in order to pay for his wars. By 1205, John was presented with what he saw as, a golden opportunity to show his regal powers. The Archbishop of Canterbury died and John, as King wasn’t going to let the Pope decide who was going to replace him. Having his own man, John de Gray who at his time was bishop of Norwich, put forward against Pope Innocent III’s choice, Stephen Langton.

Ultimately, the argument between Pope and king lead to John being

excommunicated and an interdict being placed over England, meaning no religious ceremonies could be carried out, including burials and weddings.

Pope Innocent III wearing a Y-shaped pallium

Unknown Artist SOURCE: Public domain

Finally in 1212, John agreed to allow Stephen Langton to become Archbishop, after immense pressure from his barons, a potential French invasion and a country without religious practices all laying heavily on his shoulders. In order to free England from the interdict, John had to both pay extortionate ‘compensation’ to Rome but also, go on crusade. Preparing, or actually taking part in a crusade protected both John and England from potential invasions from any other Christian power, namely the French.


Reform on the horizon

Overall, by 1212 things weren’t looking good for the king. An overtaxed population, angry lords and barons, a disgruntled clergy, and a French King in full control over all of john’s continental positions. John continued to try and take back his French lands but, after failure upon failure, John was in trouble. By 1215 John had returned to England to see his Barons in full rebellion, forming a so called ‘Army of God’ they marched on London. Led by Robert Fitzwalter, the Barons demanded not a replacement for John but, a complete overhaul of his prerogatives and rights.

What followed would become one of the most famous events in world history, the signing of the Magna Carta.


Written by Chris Feery

My name is Chris, I’m 27, live in Sheffield England and I have been a passionate history fan as long as I can remember. I would describe my self as a self taught, amateur historian keen to both learn and teach, with a specific interest in medieval England and the World Wars. Outside of history, I’m a big fan of American football, the NBA and video games, spending far more time than I care to admit on my Playstation. I’m always keen to have historical debates and share ideas on topics to cover so feel free to follow me on instagram @chrisriley_ and say hi :)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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