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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.

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.

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.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

21Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was a powerful and dynamic figure: noted for her beauty, intelligence and energy, she was wife of two kings, mother of two more, political activist, patron of the arts, and lover of French courtly romance. She lived for eighty-two full years and accomplished remarkable feats in her old age, despite having given birth to ten children and having lived in imprisonment for over a decade.

Queen of France

22At the age of fifteen, Eleanor married the heir to the French throne, later Louis VII of France. Initially, Louis was enthralled by Eleanor and was willing to embrace her fascination with the current fashion of courtly love, but after Eleanor's sister eloped with his married brother and war ensued, Louis became extremely devout and ascetic -- qualities which Eleanor held in contempt. She accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade with a group of her ladies, all of whom dressed in armor and were a constant source of irritation. Returning from the crusade, Louis arranged an annulment on the grounds of consanguinity, as they were distantly related.

Queen of England

23As the ruler of the dukedom of Aquitaine, Eleanor was required to pay homage to the present king of France, but had authority to rule without interference. Her second marriage was to Henry II, count of Anjou; although she was eleven years older than Henry, she was a good match, possessing both beauty and a sizeable inheritance. In 1154, Henry succeeded Stephen of Blois as the King of England, and Eleanor became Queen. She bore eight children to Henry (seven of whom survived). In due course, Eleanor and Henry became estranged, probably as a result of their difference in age and Henry's predilection for mistresses. In 1172, Eleanor was captured while conspiring with her older sons in rebellion against their father, and was imprisoned at Winchester for the remainder of her husband's life.

Queen Mother

24Richard Coeur-de-Lion (Lionheart) was Eleanor's favorite son: handsome, courageous, and artistic, he embodied the courtly ideals that his mother greatly admired. When his father Henry died, Richard ordered that Eleanor be released from confinement, and gave her authority to act as regent while he was on crusade. She immediately worked to gain support for Richard throughout the kingdom and released many of her late husband's prisoners. She was present at Richard's coronation and had enough influence over him to successfully plead with him to lift his younger brother John's banishment from England. As a result, she was obliged to return to England to restrain John from political intrigues, and was later forced to oppose John's plotting with Philip Augustus to gain custody of Richard from the duke of Austria and the emperor of Germany. When Richard was ultimately released, she herself went to fetch him from Germany, although she was in her seventies at the time.

25When Richard died, Eleanor immediately began to support John's succession, marking the beginning of a close relationship that lasted throughout his reign -- one that Shakespeare captures and emphasizes in the play. Eleanor gained the support of Richard's mercenaries on John's behalf, and attacked her own grandson, Arthur, while John was being crowned in England. Remarkably, Eleanor made the difficult journey to Castile in order to secure her niece -- Blanche -- for marriage to Louis -- Philip's heir -- in order to consolidate the peace treaty of Le Goulet. Tired by this long journey, Eleanor retired to the abbey of Fontrevault. During the next outbreak of war between England and France in 1202, Eleanor left Fontevrault to secure John's interests in Poitiers when she was beset by her grandson Arthur and trapped in the castle of Mirebeau. On hearing of this, John immediately set forth to rescue her and rapidly won a resounding victory, capturing Arthur and many others. Two years later she died, on 1 April 1204, at the remarkable age of 82. She was buried at Fontevrault alongside her second husband and Richard Coeur-de-Lion.

Arthur of Brittany

Rival claims to the throne

26Arthur's short life (1187-1203) was governed by the competing forces of ambitious figures around him. Ignoring the requests of his father's family, his mother Constance insisted on naming him after the legendary King Arthur; as the gesture intended, he became a powerful symbol of nationalist pride for the Bretons, who had claimed the mythical King for their own. Arthur's uncle Richard named him successor to the throne of England at the age of four, and later attempted to become his guardian; however, the protective Bretons had hidden him away, preferring to raise him under their own influence. As he lay dying, however, Richard named his brother John as his successor, rather than Arthur.

27At the time, no decisive custom existed for determining the succession to the throne, and John's designation as heir by Richard was not perceived as conclusive; acceptance by a majority of influential barons and other officers was essential. Because of this ambiguous procedure, John and the twelve-year-old Arthur (through his mother's influence) became engaged in a struggle for the throne. While John secured the royal treasury at Chinon and visited the tombs of his father and brother at Fontevrault, Arthur and Constance seized Angiers and Arthur paid homage to Philip Augustus. John found support in the dukedom of Normandy, which supported him as the best alternative to a Breton ruler. As the new duke of Normandy, John destroyed the city of Le Mans (capital of the territory of Maine) for harboring his enemies, and immediately departed for England.

A truce broken

28The support of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, was a decisive factor in John's succession; as an experienced and influential statesman, Marshal persuaded the archbishop of Canterbury to accept John as successor, and together with Geoffrey FitzPeter, earl of Essex and chief justiciar, they prevailed upon the English barons to swear an oath of fealty; throughout England, a general lack of enthusiasm for John was tempered by distrust of his young and foreign-born nephew. John was crowned on 25 May 1199, but soon returned to the continent to contend with Arthur and his supporters. After an initial struggle with Philip, a truce was arranged in which John cultivated alliances; afterwards, Philip demanded possession of part of Normandy for himself and the right to several territories held by the Plantagenets for Arthur. John's refused, and joined battle with Philip. In due course peace was negotiated between John, Arthur, and Constance at Le Mans on 22 September 1199; John and Philip concluded the peace treaty of Le Goulet the following May.

29In the summer of 1202, irritated with John and wishing to break the feudal ties between France and England, Philip Augustus knighted Arthur and bestowed upon him all of John's territories except for Normandy, which Philip himself attempted to conquer. During the resulting war, while John was in Normandy, Arthur attempted to capture Eleanor of Aquitaine, trapping her in the castle at Mirebeau. John immediately set off for the castle, where he quickly won an impressive victory, rescuing his mother and capturing Arthur.

Arthur's death

30The exact circumstances of Arthur's death are still unknown. He was certainly kept prisoner at Falaise under Hubert de Burgh, but how he died is uncertain. Many theories of his death were documented, most of which claimed that John either murdered his nephew himself or ordered him to be killed. Ralph of Coggeshall supplied the story taken up by Shakespeare that Hubert de Burgh was ordered to blind and castrate Arthur, but instead chose to announce that he was dead. An equally colorful story was described in a poem by William the Breton, who claimed that John ran his nephew through with a sword during a solitary boat ride on the Seine . Perhaps the most convincing story is recorded in the annals of the Cistercian abbey of Margam. This detailed account claims that John had kept Arthur in the castle of Rouen and murdered him in a drunken rage one evening, tying a heavy stone to his body and throwing it into the Seine. According to this story, the body was found in a fisherman's net and buried secretly, out of fear of John; the date of the murder is given as 3 April 1203 (see Lloyd 128-9 and Warren 82-3). Whatever the case, Arthur's disappearance had a profound influence on John's reputation. Although most English were disposed to blame Arthur both for rebelling and attempting to capture his own grandmother, the Bretons were incensed against John, and Philip used the disappearance as political leverage against him.

Constance of Brittany

31Constance (1161-1201) was the heiress of Conan IV, duke of the Bretons. For dynastic reasons, she was secured as a bride for Geoffrey Plantagenet while they were both children; her father arranged the marriage in order to secure connections with Henry II, who claimed to be overlord of Brittany, and to obtain his help in controlling rebellious vassals. Constance and Geoffrey had two children: a daughter, Eleanor, and a son, Arthur, who was born after his father's death. Shakespeare's report of Constance's death was created for dramatic effect, since she later married twice: first to Ranulf of Chester, with whom she quarreled (the marriage was anulled); secondly to Guy of Thouars. Following the death of Richard I on 6 April 1199, Constance was active in trying to secure the English crown for Arthur. Their rival John was visiting them when he heard of Richard's death, whereupon he left hurriedly, possibly more out of fear of Constance and her barons than of her twelve-year-old son. Accompanied by a Breton army, Arthur and Constance seized Angers and assembled a host of barons from Anjou, Touraine, and Maine who were willing to accept Arthur as successor. They were soon joined by Philip Augustus of France, to whom Arthur did homage. Meanwhile, William Marshal, Hubert Walter, and Geoffrey Fitzpeter convinced the English barons to swear an oath of fealty to John, who was then crowned on 26 May. In August 1201, she died, apparently fully reconciled to John, who oversaw the execution of her will.See Holinshed's account of Constance's marriages.

Blanche of Castile

32Blanche (1188-1252) was the daughter of John's older sister Eleanor (not his mother Eleanor) and Alphonso VIII of Spain; thus she had indirect claims to the monarchies of both England and Spain. Married young to Lois in order to confirm the treaty of Le Goulet in 1200, Blanche was as vigorous in politics and the bearing of children as her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Louis invaded England, she did her best to summon the assistance that her father-in-law, Philip Augustus, was unwilling to provide. She traveled to Calais, where she raised two fleets and an army under Robert of Courtenay; but most of the aid failed to arrive. With Lois, she reigned as queen of France from Louis's ascent in 1223 to his death three years later; his will left her in charge of government and the kingdom while their eldest surviving son was in his minority. She took immediate steps to crown Louis XI at the young age of twelve and acted as regent until he was old enough to reign alone. She also acted as regent during Louis IX's crusades, caring for his three children, successfully increasing the territories of France, and negotiating tirelessly to create alliances, often by marriages similar to her own with Louis VIII.

33Blanche ensured that her children were well educated and pious. Two of them in fact went on to become saints. Her daughter Isabelle founded a Franciscan house for young women in Longchamp (associated with the Sisters of Saint Clare, to whom Isabel in Measure for Measure is to become dedicated at the beginning of the play); she also endowed a convent, of which she became the Abbess. Her son, Louis IX was also canonized for his life of commitment to the crusades.

Arthur's allies: Philip, Lewis, and Austria

King Philip

34Philip Augustus (Philip II of France, 1165-1223) was as opportunistic in making and breaking alliances as any member of the bitterly divided English royal family. He secretly plotted against Henry with Henry's son Geoffrey; after Geoffrey's death, Philip collaborated with Geoffrey's brother Richard in further conflict with Henry II; two days before his own death, Henry agreed to surrender Philip's imprisoned sister Alais and to name Richard his heir. A close friendship between Richard and Philip continued until they embarked together on the Third Crusade; during their time abroad, the relationship between the two men deteriorated, finally ending when Philip returned to France. When Philip heard the news of Richard's imprisonment by the German emperor, he conspired with John in an attempt to raise a larger ransom than Richard's adherents so they could claim the prisoner for themselves. Although this plan ultimately failed, Philip and John maintained an alliance of sorts, forming a pact of mutual protection. This pact was shattered when John, deprived of all of his land for his treachery but otherwise forgiven by his brother, began a prolonged series of raids and attacks on Philip's territory, a war which lasted for two years. Unsurprisingly, on Richard's death, Philip supported John's nephew Arthur as successor to the English crown.

35Backed by the support of Normandy and most of England, John was crowned at home but returned to the Continent to contend with Philip. After several battles between them, Philip made the mistake of capturing a stronghold belonging to Arthur, causing the leader of the Arthur's Breton army to forge a reconciliation between John and his nephew. In May 1200, a peace treaty was concluded between Philip and John, further substantiated by marriage between John's niece Blanche and Philip's heir Louis. This was not the end of conflict between the two countries, however: between 1203 and 1204, Philip managed to conquer the dukedom of Normandy, and his son Louis joined forces with rebellious English barons in 1216 in an invasion which ended with John's death. Philip himself died in 1223.

Louis VIII (the Daupin in King John)

36It was at the age of twelve that Louis (1187-1226) was married to Blanche of Castile (a year younger) to cement the alliance between Philip Augustus and King John at the treaty of Goulet in 1200. The marriage was not consummated until some five years after the marriage; the couple had twelve children, six of whom survived. Although Shakespeare portrays the couple as considerably older, the play is accurate in recording the arranged marriage between Louis, as the heir of Philip Augustus, to Blanche, the daughter of King Alfonso of Castile and King John's older sister Eleanor. Shakespeare takes advantage of the irony that the marriage ultimately provided a tempting excuse for Louis to claim the crown of England for himself. In 1215, rebellious English barons solicited Louis for help in their cause, favouring him as a replacement for John; Philip was reluctant to break his truce and anger Pope Innocent III (who felt that revolt distracted from his main priority of the crusades), so Louis sent troops to England in a private capacity. By spring 1216 Philip had decided to invade England, but failed to gain the support of the French barons or the papal legate; Louis, who claimed that he was not personally bound by the peace treaty, left for England with an army of volunteers and men from his own territories. Initially, Louis met with tremendous success in England, quickly conquering the southern counties and receiving many English defectors who perceived John's cause to be hopeless. There was little resistance when the prince entered London and was proclaimed King with great pomp and celebration at St Paul's Cathedral. Even though he was not crowned, many nobles, as well as King Alexander II of Scotland (1214-49), gathered to offer homage.

37However, by the end of the summer, the rebels had been deprived of some of their most vigorous leaders and tensions had increased between English and French barons, causing some to return to their origingal allegiance. John's army enjoyed some success, but his unexpected death on 18 October 1216 left the situation in England precarious. Many who had supported Louis as an alternative to John had no aversion to his nine-year-old son Henry. After the defeat of a strong party of rebels and French knights the following spring, the English barons took an oath of allegiance to Henry; in a further blow, the loss of expected reinforcements forced Louis to seek terms, and peace was restored to England of 12 September 1217. On his father's death on 14 July 1223, he received the crown at the age of thirty-six, but he died only three years later. In his brief reign he successfully continued the campaigns of his father against the dwindling holdings of the English on the continent, and waged war against a heretical sect in the south of France.


38Shakespeare combined two historical figures in the character of Austria, who is also called "Limoges" in the play. Constance taunts him, suggesting that he has no moral right to wear the lion's skin he supposedly took from Richard Lionheart: "O Limoges, O Austria, thou dost shame / That bloody spoil (TLN 1040-41).

Leopold, Duke of Austria

39Leopold was on crusade at the same time as Richard I and Philip Augustus, and helped to lay siege to Acre, the main harbor and a vital gateway to the Holy Land. When the two-year siege was rapidly concluded a month after Richard's arrival, Richard took credit for the victory and insulted Leopold by forbidding him to raise his emblem in the city. Earlier in his journey, Richard had also treated one of Leopold's relatives with contempt: arriving in Cyprus, he had received little hospitality from its king, Isaac Comemnus, and accordingly captured the chief town, ransacked the island, and forced Comemnus to surrender on the plea that he not be placed in irons; instead, Richard had him placed in silver chains. Offended by these insults, Leopold was not disposed to treat Richard kindly when he caught him passing through Austria on his homeward journey from Acre with an escort of only seventeen men. He was arrested near Vienna, and taken into custody by Henry VI, the emperor of Germany, who also had grievances against Richard and the English. Henry and Leopold shared the exorbitant ransom of one hundred fifty thousand marks, although most of it was kept by the German emperor.

40Guy, Viscount of Limoges

40Guy, Viscount of Limoges and his half-brother, Count Audemar of Angoulême, occupied territories in the dukedom of Aquitaine. Like others in that region, they felt little feudal obligation to the king of England, and could only be kept in order by armed force. When a hoard of Gallo-Roman treasure (including golden statues and coins) was unearthed near Limoges, Richard I claimed it as his right as overlord of the region; the Viscount was willing to share the treasure with him, but would not part with all of it. Characteristically, Richard attempted to lay siege to the Viscount's castle at Châlus, but was hit in the neck with a crossbow bolt. His wound festered, and he died ten days later on 6 April 1199. The next year, in the peace treaty of Le Goulet, King John was required by Philip Augustus of France to receive Limoges and his half-brother back into homage and return their property. A letter written by Limoges to Philip Augustus in 1214 demonstrates that he had pledged himself to John's cause and abandoned all alliance with France.

40aHenry III

Crowned in 1216 at the age of nine in a simple ceremony in Gloucester, Henry III went on to reign for 56 years. His reign was typically turbulent one, battling the barons and doing his best to avoid living up to the conditions of the Magna Carta his father had signed. The barons, under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, brought Henry close to complete defeat. His son, Later Edward I, escaped from prison, and defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Henry died seven years later in 1272.

A timeline of major events in the life of King John

41This timeline, assembed from works in the Bibliography, assembles important dates from the reign of King John. Some dates are more approximate than others, and historical sources sometimes differ on details.

1122Eleanor of Aquitaine is born.
1137Eleanor marries the heir to the French throne, later Louis VII of France.
1152 (Whitsuntide)Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry II, count of Anjou.
1154 (17 December)Henry II becomes King of England, succeeding King Stephen of Blois
1155John’s elder brother Henry (later "the Young King" is born.
1157 (8 September)Richard Plantagenet (later Richard I, Coeur-de-lion) is born.
1158 (23 September)Geoffrey Plantagenet is born.
1161 (12 June)Constance of Brittany is born.
1165 (21 August)Philip II Augustus is born.
1166 (24 December)John Plantagenet, later King John, is born.
1167King John is born on December 24, 1167 at Beaumont Palace, Oxford. He was the youngest of a large family: three brothers, Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard; three sisters, Matilda, Duchess of Saxony (1156–1189), Leonora of England (1161–1214) and Joan Plantagenet (1165–1199).
1170 (29 December)Thomas à Beckett is murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.
1172Eleanor is captured while conspiring with her older sons in rebellion against their father, and imprisoned at Winchester for the remainder of her husband's life.
1179 (1 November)Philip Augustus is crowned.
1181Constance and Geoffrey are married.
1183 (June)Henry the Young King dies of dysentery and Richard becomes heir to the throne of England.
1185 (24 April)John leaves for Ireland to administer it for his father, Henry II.
1185 (September)John returns from Ireland.
1186 (19 August)Geoffrey dies of fever after a tournament accident.
1187 (29 March)Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey and Constance, is born.
1187Jerusalem is captured by Saladin, sultan of Egypt.
1187 (5 September)Louis VIII is born.
1188Blanche of Castile is born -- daughter of John’s elder sister Eleanor and Alphonso VIII of Spain.
1189 (6 July)King Henry II dies on 6 July 1189 at the Chateau of Chinon and Richard is crowned King.
1189 (8 July)Richard attends his father's funeral and orders Eleanor's release from confinement.
1189 (August)John is married to Avisa, daughter and heiress of William FitzRobert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester (later the marriage was annulled).
1189 (3 September)Richard is crowned.
1189Richard gives John the titles of Count of Mortain and Lord of Ireland and orders him to stay away from England for the next three years.
1189Richard names Arthur of Brittany heir to the English throne.
1189 (December)Richard leaves England.
1190 (4 July)Richard embarks on the Third Crusade.
1192 (2 September)Richard concludes a treaty with Saladin.
1192 (December)On his return from crusade, Richard is shipwrecked off the coast of the Adriatic, imprisoned by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, and held to ransom.
1194 (4 February)The ransom is paid and Richard is released.
1199 (6 April)King Richard dies of an infected arrow wound and John succeeds to the throne of England.
1199 (21 May)John arrives in England.
1199 (27 May)King John is crowned in Westminster Abbey.
1199 (22 September)Peace is negotiated between John, Arthur, and Constance at Le Mans.
1200 (24 August)King John marries Isabelle of Angoulême. They have five children: Henry ( who became King Henry III ), Richard, Earl of Cornwall, Joan, Isabella, and Eleanor.
1200 (22 May)John and Philip conclude the peace treaty of Le Goulet.
1200 (22 May)Blanche of Castile and Louis VIII are married.
1201 (August)Constance dies, apparently fully reconciled to John.
1202 (summer)Philip Augustus knights Arthur and bestows upon him all of John's territories except for Normandy.
1202 (1 August)John rescues Eleanor from Arthur at the castle of Mirebeau and has Arthur imprisoned.
1202The Fourth Crusade begins.
1203 (3 April?)Arthur dies. May have been murdered by John.
1204 (1 April)Eleanor of Aquitaine dies at the age of 82.
1204 (March)Philip seizes Château Gaillard (a castle built by Richard).
1204 (24 June)Philip is admitted into the city of Rouen.
1205 (13 July)Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury dies. John becomes involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the new archbishop of Canterbury.
1207 (1 October)John's son Henry III is born.
1208 (24 March)Pope Innocent III proclaims an Interdict on England.
1209 (November)John is excommunicated due to his opposition to Stephen Langton who was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Innocent III.
1211John quashes a Welsh rebellion.
1212John imposes taxes on the Barons in his attempts to regain the lost lands of Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou.
1213John and the pope are reconciled.
1214 (27 July)Defeated at the Battle of Bouvines, King John is forced to accept an unfavorable peace with France.
1214King Alexander II of Scotland is born.
1214 (2 July)The interdict imposed by the pope on England is officially lifted.
1214 (15 May)John places England and Ireland under papal overlordship.
1214 (October)John's barons defy him.
1215rebellious English barons solicit Louis for help in their cause, favoring him as a replacement for John
1215 - 1217First Barons War: The rebel barons support the son of the king of France, Prince Louis.
1215 (4 March)John takes vows as a crusader.
1215 (5 May)The rebel barons formally renounce their fealty to John.
1215 (10 June)John commits himself to the first draft of the Magna Carta.
1215 (15 June)John places his seal on the Magna Carta in the meadow of Runnymede.
1215 (Autumn)Civil war begins in England.
1215 (Autumn)The Magna Carta is annulled by the pope.
1215 (December)John sets out on an ambitious and successful expedition throughout the eastern half of England.
1216 (21 May)Louis invades England and marches to London where he receives support and is proclaimed and accepted as King of England (although not actually crowned). John escapes to Winchester.
1216 (14 June)Louis captures Winchester.
1216 (25 July)Louis lays siege to Dover Castle but fails to capture it.
1216 (September)John begins a counterattack.
1216 (October)John loses part of his baggage train, including the crown jewels in the river Wellstream at the head of the Lincolnshire Wash.
1216 (18 October)John contracts dysentery at Lynn, in Norfolk, then dies at Newark and is was buried in Worcester Cathedral.
1216 (28 October)The barons turn against Louis and give their support to the nine year old son of John who then became King Henry III of England.
1216 (28 October)Henry III is crowned.
1217 (12 September)Peace is restored to England.
1223 (14 July)Philip Augustus of France dies; Louis VIII receives the crown at the age of thirty-six.
1226 (8 November)Louis VIII dies, succeeded by his twelve-year-old son Louis IX; Blanche is regent until he reaches an age to rule.
1249Alexander II of Scotland dies.
1252Blanche of Castile dies.


  1. 42Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
  2. 43Harvey, John. The Plantagenets. 3rd ed. London: Severn House Publishers, 1976.
  3. 44Hutton, William Holden. Philip Augustus. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd, 1896.
  4. 45Lloyd, Alan. King John. Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles (Holdings) Limited, 1973.
  5. 46Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  6. 47Warren, W. L. King John. 2nd ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997.
  7. 48West, Francis James. The justiciarship in England, 1066-1232. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.