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Author: Michael Best
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Historical Notes on the reign of King John


King John

10Shakespeare considerably simplifies the complicated events of John's reign, compressing the events of some fifteen years into the short span of no more than a few months.

A reckless youth

11John (1166-1216) was born at Oxford on Christmas Eve to Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. As the last of the family's seven surviving children, John was nicknamed "Lackland" by his father for missing out on a dukedom of his own, since his father's territories had already been apportioned to his brothers Henry, Richard and Geoffrey. John was placed in the abbey of Fontevrault in the dukedom of Anjou when he was a little over one year old. His father made various attempts to secure a future for him, all of which were thwarted in one way or another by his older brothers. In 1185, Henry decided to assign Ireland to John's administration, having established tentative authority over the Irish chieftains in exchange for his protection. At the age of nineteen, John was considered mature enough to receive the title of Lord of Ireland and its associated peacekeeping responsibilities, and was accordingly sent across with an army of 300 knights and a detachment of chancery clerks. However, it seems that Henry was overly generous in his estimation of his youngest son's reliability; John quickly returned home in disgrace, having accomplished nothing in Ireland except to ridicule the Irish chieftains and unite them against him and his followers.

12When Henry II died on 6 July 1189, John's only surviving brother, Richard, took the throne. For his heir, he chose the four-year-old Arthur of Brittany, the least dangerous of his rivals, and liberally compensated John as an inducement not to rebel; along with a number of titles, territories, and revenues, John was made count of Mortain in Normandy, granted six counties in England, and was married to Isabel of Gloucester. For additional security, Richard made John swear an oath to stay out of England for three years while he was on crusade, but later submitted to his mother's pleas to release him from the oath. In the absence of restraint, John immediately set to work establishing a following in preparation for the possibility of his brother dying while abroad, He also established an informal alliance with Philip Augustus of France; hearing of Richard's imprisonment by the Emperor of Germany and the Duke of Austria, Philip and John attempted to raise his ransom and claim him as their own prisoner. This attempt failed, however, as Queen Eleanor was able to release Richard from captivity. In the following five years, John began to outgrow his reputation as a frivolous and petulant shadow of his older brothers and to demonstrate his own political and martial abilities. He delighted Richard by affectively defending Normandy against Philip of France. John was repaid for his effective generalship when Richard suddenly died of an infected arrow wound on 6 April 1199 and bequeathed his inheritance to John rather than to Arthur.

The succession

13Richard's endorsement of John as his successor was influential but not final (see the discussion of Richard's will in the General Introduction). John's greatest rival for the throne was his nephew Arthur, now twelve; despite his youth he posed a significant threat thanks to the support of his indomitable mother Constance. Coincidentally, John was staying with his nephew and sister-in-law when he heard of Richard's death; he immediately left Brittany and secured the Angevin treasury at Chinon, in Anjou. Joined by members of Richard's household who supported his dying request, John went to Fontevrault to pay respects to the tombs of his brother and father. Intending to take possession of Angers, John learned that Arthur and Constance had already seized the town, having gained support from the duchies of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, as well as from the king of France. John fled to Normandy, where he was crowned Duke; the Normans preferred him to Arthur, whose Breton heritage made him suspect. Having gained the support of Normandy, John viciously attacked the city of Le Mans, capital of the territory of Maine, making it an example for previously admitting his enemies. Soon afterwards, he left for England. William Marshal (earl of Pembroke), Hubert Walter (Archbishop of Canterbury), and the chief justiciar (Geoffrey FitzPeter, whom he created earl of Essex), convened a grand council at Northampton, where they assembled the English barons and persuaded them to swear loyalty to John. The barons shared the general opinion of the English people that John was a marginally better option than his young, unknown, foreign-born nephew.

14On 27 May 1199, two days after his arrival in England, John was crowned in Westminster Abbey. He was obliged to return to the continent soon afterwards, supported by reinforcements of English troops, in order to respond to Philip of France, who had demanded Anjou, Maine, and Touraine for Arthur and part of Normandy for himself. John rejected the demand outright. Philip made a crucial mistake in allowing William of Roches, the commander of the Breton forces, an excuse to change sides by seizing a castle in William's jurisdiction. Accordingly, William negotiated the terms of peace between John, Constance, and Arthur. With this agreement, neither John nor Philip was motivated to continue the war; after a suspension of hostilities over the winter, the treaty of Le Goulet was concluded on 22 May 1200. Under the terms of this treaty, John was accepted as the heir to the territories that his father and brother had held on the continent, but acknowledged that he held them from the King of France as his overlord; Arthur was acknowledged to be John's vassal as the heir to the dukedom of Brittany. Peace between England and France was further consolidated by the marriage of John's niece, Blanche of Castile, to Philip's heir, Louis; the territories which Philip particularly desired were assigned as Blanche's dowry in order to minimize dissent between the two monarchs.

John and Arthur

15John was given another nickname, "Softsword," by those who disapproved of his peace treaty with France. However, the peace that marked the beginning of his reign was soon replaced by a varied series of conflicts, in which Philip of France was continually involved. The first major conflict was precipitated by John's marriage to the twelve-year-old Isabel of Angoulême (his already tenuous marriage to Isabelle of Gloucester was broken off on the grounds of consanguinity, as they were cousins). This second marriage allowed John to pacify Isabelle's proud and rebellious father, Count Aymer of Angoulême, who was lord of an important area in the turbulent dukedom of Aquitaine. However, the marriage also created conflict with the Lusignians, an important family in Poitou (a province of western France). John acted aggressively, further alienating Philip, who responded by knighting Arthur of Brittany and appointing him John's successor in all his territories except for Normandy, which the French king was still determined to capture. While the subsequent war was in its early stages, John received the news that Arthur and a band of rebels were attempting to capture Eleanor. John immediately caught up with her at the castle of Mirebeau, rescued her, and captured a number of her attackers, including Arthur (see Foxe). Shakespeare distills the essence of this event into a brief moment in the second battle before Angiers, where it is the Bastard who rescues Eleanor. The exact circumstances of Arthur's mysterious death remain unknown, but rumors widely circulated of John's involvement, damaging his reputation on the continent. He then had to face both the furious Bretons and the King of France.

16Following the death of Arthur, John's fortunes declined as he suffered the double loss of Richard's renowned Château Gaillard and his venerable old mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Philip seized the great city of Rouen -- and with it, Normandy as a whole -- from the dispirited English king. John attempted to muster a vigorous onslaught to counteract Philip's designs on England and Poitou, but abandoned the expedition when his barons rebelled. The following year, however, he won back much of Poitou and forced Philip to accept a truce.

John's conflict with the pope

17As a complication to the main plot of the conflict with Philip of France, Shakespeare weaves into the play a later series of events that have to do with his conflict with the pope. Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury died on 13 July 1205; John's choice for Walter's replacement was John Gray, Bishop of Norwich, his secretary and personal friend. However, this nomination was complicated by the actions of a number of the younger Canterbury monks, who privately elected their prior, Reginald, and sent him to Rome; the monks were later caught and persuaded by John to elect Gray. Confused by the situation, Pope Innocent III dismissed both candidates and proposed that they consider Stephen Langton, his own choice, instead. The monks accepted him unanimously, but John's reply to this decision was furious and impudent, and the indignant pope refused to change his mind. Although John could not prevent Langton from being consecrated as archbishop, he refused to allow him to enter the country. After two years of waiting for John to accept Langton, Innocent III laid England under an interdict, affectively depriving England of all Church functions except for baptism and the confession of the dying. The irreverent John, not overly dismayed, merely took advantage of opportunity to make money by taking a portion of the clergy members' revenue and holding their concubines hostage. In November 1209, John was personally excommunicated. He and the pope were not reconciled until 1213, when he accepted the pope's decisioin to place England and Ireland under the feudal overlordship of Rome. (See Foxe.

The Magna Carta

18On returning from a defeat on the continent in October 1214, John was greeted by the defiance of many of his barons, who protested against his demand for scutage (a fine for refusing to take part in a campaign), on the grounds that they were not obliged to take part in foreign wars. The barons produced a charter of liberties which had been promised by Henry I to the English people in 1100; the charter addressed the deeper issues causing the present discontent, but had never actually been implemented by Henry himself. The rebels demanded a similar charter from John, in preference to armed conflict. To counteract this tactic, John took the cross as a crusader, an action which allowed him to invoke the protection of the church. On 5 May 1215, the rebels formally renounced their fealty to John; John responded by suggesting that the dispute be turned over to papal arbitration. The rebels rejected this offer and John retaliated by ordering the seizure of their lands and chattels. The baron's army achieved their greatest coup by taking command of London, and they gained support from Scotland, Wales, and France, while John was joined by a contingent of Flemish knights. John petitioned the pope for mediation, but the barons were more interested in a fundamental shift of power than the resolution of specific complaints.

19When civil war was beginning to seem inevitable, Archbishop Stephen Langton and a party of neutrals intervened, forcing the rebel barons to negotiate a compromise; Langton proposed the implementation of a code of conduct that would be agreeable to the king, the Church, and the baronage. On 10 June 1215, John committed himself to the first draft of the charter, known as "The Articles of the Barons"; five days later, in the meadow of Runnymede, he allowed his Great Seal to be placed on the final document, the Magna Carta Libertatum (the Great Charter of Liberties). Although this document is of great historical interest in establishing limitation of the king's power by way of custom rather than rebellion, John was not actually prepared to limit his power, and immediately requested annulment from Pope Innocent III. John had specifically abstained from violence throughout the affair in order to gain the pope's sympathy, and his restraint was soon repaid with the invalidation of the Magna Carta. (On the omission of any mention of the Magna Carta from the play, see the General Introduction and Foxe.)

John's death

20However, many of the rebel barons were not content with the agreement and refused to commit themselves to peace. The barons solicited France for help, offering the crown to Philip's son Louis (Lewis in the play) through the rights of his wife and John's niece, Blanche. Although Philip seems to have wanted to invade England and place his son on the throne, he hesitated in fear of once more provoking the anger of Innocent III. Louis sent a contingent of his knights to England, but they were of limited help to the rebels. In December 1215, John set out on an ambitious and successful expedition throughout the eastern half of England, arresting the advance of Alexander of Scotland and frightening rebel leaders into submission. By the spring of 1216, Philip had decided to invade England, but was unable to convince the French barons or the papal legate; consequently, Louis independently conducted the invasion with an army of volunteers and men from his own territories. Initially, he met with tremendous success in England, quickly conquering the southern counties and receiving many English defectors who perceived John's cause to be hopeless. However, by the end of the summer, the rebels had been deprived of a number of their most vigorous leaders, and tensions between English and French barons had caused some of the English to return to John. Encouraged, John switched to offensive tactics, returning to the eastern counties in an attempt to drive off Scottish invaders and bring relief to the city of Lincoln; however, he contracted dysentery, probably as a result of over-indulgence. After an accident in the river Wellstream, in which the king suffered a loss of part of his baggage train including the crown jewels, John reached the bishop of Lincoln's castle at Newark, where he died on 18 October 1216. (The loss of John's baggage forms the basis of the incident where the Bastard loses half his men in the Lincolnshire Wash or tidal esturies; see TLN 2599.) John's body was interred in Worcester Cathedral; he was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Henry in the following spring. See the versions of John's death in Foxe and Holinshed.