King John, A Great King

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Born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, John was the fifth son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. John was a younger half-brother of Marie de Champagne and Alix of France. He was a younger brother of William, Count of Poitiers, Henry the Young King, Matilda of England, Richard I of England, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, Leonora of Aquitaine and Joan of England.

John was always his father’s favourite son, as the youngest he could expect no inheritance, hence his nickname, “Lackland”. He was almost certainly born in 1166 instead of 1167, as is sometimes claimed. King Henry and Queen Eleanor were not together nine months prior to December 1167, but they were together in March 1166. Also, John was born at Oxford on or near Christmas, but Eleanor and Henry spent Christmas 1167 in Normandy. The canon of Laon, writing a century later, states John was named after Saint John the Apostle, on whose feast day (December 27) he was born. Ralph of Diceto also states that John was born in 1166, and that Queen Eleanor named him.

His family life was tumultuous, with his older brothers all involved in rebellions against Henry. Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173, when John was a small boy. Gerald of Wales relates that King Henry had a curious painting in a chamber of Winchester Castle, depicting an eagle being attacked by three of its chicks, while a fourth chick crouched, waiting for its chance to strike.

John had the administrative ability of a great ruler but, from the moment he began to rule, rivals and traitors tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. As he wrestled with one problem, more enemies sprang upon his back.

In 1186 Henry’s next son died in a tournament. Now there was only Richard and John left, with Richard as heir to the throne. Both Richard and John were angry with their father Henry II as he would not give them any power of their own and would not let them go on Crusade.

In 1187 Jerusalem had fallen to the Turks with the loss of many Crusader Knights. Philippe II of France used the conflict between the King of England and his two remaining sons for his own aims and managed to get both Richard and John to conspire against their father.

In July 1189, abandoned by his own sons, Henry II died.

Richard became King and the first thing he did was go on Crusade. Richard was aware that John was pleased to see him go to the middle East where he could get killed and leave John to inherit his domains. To try to prevent John from claiming the English throne while he was away, Richard Black satta gave him several titles including the Count of Mortain and Lord of Ireland.

Richard also ordered John to stay away from England for three years. Richard also nominated his nephew, Arthur of Brittany as heir to the English throne even though the boy was only four years old. The only problem for Richard came with the appointment of William Longchamp whose job it was to administer the country while Richard was away.

Longchamp was an unpopular administrator with the Barons and John became popular in his opposition. Richard became aware of John’s ambitions and the threat of civil war and sent Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen to sort out the problems.

Walter did this by taking Longchamp’s place. At this point John sort help from the French king Philippe II who was eager to obtain lands that Richard owned in Normandy.

King John became King in 1199 when his brother, King Richard I, died. To many, John was cruel, greedy and ultimately a failure as King. He fell out with both his father and his brother in family feuds.

He argued with his nephew, Arthur, over succession. This trouble led to the loss of English territory in France in 1205. King John unsuccessfully attempted to regain France for the rest of his reign. He kept raising taxes to pay for his campaigns, but every time he went to France to fight, he lost.

Roger of Wendover, English chronicler, a monk of St. Albans.

As historiographer of St. Albans, he began the Flores historiarum, a general chronicle starting with the creation. He drew the material from 1192 to 1201 from Roger of Hoveden, but that from 1201 to 1235 is original. His work contains many fantastic and distorted stories and judgments hostile to King John. He is in large part responsible for the negative picture of John (perpetuated by Matthew of Paris) that has come down through history.

*** Boo Wendover !

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta marked an agreement negotiated between King John’s government and his subjects concerning the limits and responsibilities of Government and the legal rights of free citizens. It contained the pledge that no free man should have his rights removed without the due process of law and the judgement of his peers. It is taken to be the foundation of the liberties of the citizen in the English-speaking world.

It was in St Albans that the document which was to develop into Magna Carta was first read.

The Great Council


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