Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Historical Notes on the reign of King John


The crown and succession in King John's England

1The period of history that Shakespeare found described in considerable detail in Holinshed Foxe, and other sources, was one of considerable turmoil. Nation states had yet to be created from the shifting networks and rivalries of feudal allegiances. In England the barons saw the king as first among equals rather than a supreme head, and on the Continent the many territories (or fiefdoms) created a shifting set of alliances and enmities. Some were divided by long ethnic or language differences: Scotland, Wales, and Ireland from England; and the Normans and Bretons from other areas of what is now France. Others were divided by families and their determination to pursue and hang on to power. It is important to remember that all those who were struggling for power in England were French-speaking, and all felt as much loyalty to their holdings on the Continent as to those in England. The nationalism that Shakespeare exploits in his play was a much later phenomenon, fuelled of course by the threat of Spain's Armada just a few years before King John was written.

2The crown of England was only a part of the territories that the family of the Plantagenets (also known as the Angevins) claimed. At various times they ruled over much of current England, Wales, Ireland, and more than half of modern France, then divided into multiple dukedoms and fiefdoms. John cheerfully gives away a long list of them when he negotiates peace with King Philip of France before the gates of Angiers (modern Anger). To his niece Blanche, about to be married to Philip's son Lewis (or Louis), he promises:

Anjou and fair Touraine, Maine, Poitiers,
And all that we upon this side the sea --
Except this city now by us besieged --
Find liable to our crown and dignity,
Shall gild her bridal bed. (TLN 803-07)
The historical John was not quite so generous.

3Rivalries for the thrones of England and France were further complicated because the process by which a new king was chosen had not fully settled on the principle of primogeniture -- the throne going to the eldest surviving male descendent of the previous king. By Shakespeare's time this principle had become fixed, and had been extended to include surviving daughters where there were no sons; both daughters of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth, became rulers as a result. John's father, Henry II, had four sons who survived infancy; three of these became kings:

  1. Henry (confusingly enough) was crowned while his father was still alive, and was called the Young King; he died before his father.
  2. Richard I (Coeur-de-Lion or Lionheart) ruled for ten years, but spent most of his time on crusade.
  3. John, who reigned for seventeen years.

4Shakespeare, in large measure following the author of The Troublesome Reign of King John (see the General Introduction), compresses the action of many years into a few months, combining different campaigns and political events; it is clear, however, that Shakespeare consulted several chronicles on King John's reign. Shakespeare's sources are discussed in more detail in the General Introduction. The notes that follow provide a summary of what we know of the history of the period. In general, the facts differ very little from the history that Shakespeare would have read from his own sources, though they were in various ways slanted to favor or disparage papal authority.