Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Historical Notes on the reign of King John


Before the play begins

5King John mentions several historical figures who have died before the play begin: John's father, Henry II, and his two elder brothers, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and Geoffry.

5aA family tree

Characters in the play are in red.

Henry II

6Henry II (1154-1189) inherited England and Normandy through his mother, the Empress Matilda, and the territories of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou. As a descendant of the Angevin lineage, Henry II inherited his family's propensities for both enormous energy and notorious in-fighting. Although he took pains to secure a portion of his domains for each of his sons, his family was what today we would call dysfunctional: he had to endure continuous plotting and dissent both with and between his children, a state of conflict which was encouraged by his estranged wife Eleanor -- whom at one stage he imprisoned for her complicity in her sons' rebellion.

7Among this familial dissent, Henry developed new administrative techniques in order to retain control over his vast territory, implementing centralized administrations in each province. These political achievements were tempered by the infamous murder of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, following a long argument concerning the right of lay courts to try clergymen. A characteristic burst of temper was fatally misconstrued by four knights of his household. Tradition has it that Henry was so enraged by à Beckett's actions that he exclaimed "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" -- upon which hint the knights murdered à Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. This event cast a shadow over the remainder of the king's life, and he was forced to negotiate with the pope to avoid excommunication; he even blamed his sons' ensuing rebellion on divine retribution. After the death of his eldest surviving son, Henry, from dysentery, he named Richard heir, made peace between his remaining sons, and subsequently sent John to Ireland by way of keeping him occupied. Once more, rebellion broke out amongst his sons, with Richard siding with Philip Augustus of France; two days after concluding a treaty of peace, Henry died on 6 July 1189.

Richard I Coeur-de-lion

8Distinguished by the nickname "Coeur-de-lion" or "Lion-Heart," Richard I (1157-1199) was famous for his prowess in battle. Only one day after hearing of a defeat of Christians in the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Richard took the cross, beginning a lifelong devotion to the Third Crusade. This project was deferred by a period of rebellion against his father, Henry II, in which he and the French King, Philip Augustus, strove to ensure his right of succession. He was finally was granted his wish two days before his father's death on 6 July 1189. He was crowned in the same year, and almost immediately set off on crusade with Philip Augustus. During the following two years, he backed Count Tancred of Leece as King of Sicily against German emperor Henry VI; ransacked Cyprus, placing its ruler in chains; concluded his allies' two-year siege on Acres, a vital gateway to the Holy Land; ruined his friendship with Philip; and, after a period of fighting and diplomatic negotiation, finally concluded a treaty with Saladin under which the Christians were allowed to retain territory in Syria and to visit Jerusalem on pilgrimages. On his homeward journey, he was captured by Leopold of Austria, placed under the custody of Henry VI of Germany, and ransomed at high cost. Following a period of relative peace during which he forgave John for his treason and raised money in an attempt to reverse the country's financial breakdown, he died of an infected arrow wound while attempting to lay siege to the castle of the Viscount of Limoges in a dispute over some recently unearthed golden statues.

Geoffrey of Brittany

9The last of Henry's sons to be guaranteed succession to part of his territory, Geoffrey (1158-1186) was already betrothed to Constance of Brittany by the time his brother John was born. The two younger brothers were alike in build, both short (though well-built), as opposed to the taller Henry and Richard. Gerald of Wales describes him as having a propensity for cunning in proportion to his skill in combat: "He was not easily deceived, and one would have called him most sagacious were it not for his readiness to deceive others" (Warren 31-32). Throughout Geoffrey's lifetime, he was continuously embroiled in family discord. He and the Young King (Geoffrey's oldest brother Henry, crowned within their father's lifetime), aided attempts at rebellion in Richard's dukedom of Aquitaine, which Geoffrey afterwards attempted to seize with the help of John after the Young King's sudden death. Despite these incidents of rebellion, Geoffrey managed to establish a degree of order in Brittany, thus helping his father to rule his vast territory. However, Geoffrey also became close friends with Philip Augustus of France, who helped him to plot against his father, Henry II. They were so close that, according to Gerald of Wales, when Geoffrey died of fever after a tournament accident on 19 August 1186, Philip had to be forcibly restrained from leaping into his grave (Hutton 39). Geoffrey left behind a daughter, Eleanor, and an unborn son, Arthur.