Internet Shakespeare Editions


Early kings: King John

King John. Reproduced from David Hume, The History of England (1826). University of Victoria Library.

During his own lifetime John was the most unpopular of English medieval kings because of his dangerous political incompetence. Nevertheless, in Shakespeare's time his resistance to the authority of Rome made him a particularly sympathetic figure.

In Shakespeare's play King John, John is portrayed as a cunning politician of the kind described by Machiavelli:

Doth not the crown of England prove the king?
(King John, 2.1.273).

(More on Machiavelli.)

Richard named his brother John as heir because their nephew Arthur, despite having a better claim to the throne, was too young to rule and lacked strong support by the barons*. However, both Richard and John at various times were involved in battles with each other and with their father, Henry II.

The plot thickens

The French king, Philip, tried to divide the power of the English by backing Arthur's claim to the throne. John appeased Philip in 1200 by ceding him parts of Normandy and establishing Arthur as duke of Brittany; but two years later Philip declared his rights as an overlord. In the resulting war, John captured Arthur of Brittany (who died while a prisoner*) but by 1206 he had lost all his French territories except parts of Aquitaine and Poitou (see the map).

To the Elizabethans, John was something of an early anti-papal hero, as he had broken with Pope Innocent III in 1207 by refusing to accept his appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. John was excommunicated, but he still had the support of the majority of barons, since the king's confiscation of church properties allowed a reduction in taxes. (In this John prefigured the more thorough actions of Henry VIII in dissolving the monasteries.)

Only when England was threatened by a French invasion, with papal consent to depose the king, did John agree to compromise royal authority.

John also agreed (in principle) to limit his authority by signing the Magna Carta, a document which changed the nature of government in England. Click for more*.


  1. Hereditary rights

    Support for Arthur of Brittany's hereditary rights came from Philip of France (who had his own interests in mind) and not from English nobles.

    At this time, heredity was not considered as important a factor in determining kingship as the personal qualities of the ruler--a view which later led to the forced abdications of Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI (the latter two times sanctioned by Parliament).

  2. The unfortunate Arthur

    In Shakespeare's version, John plots to kill Arthur, but the boy persuades his jailer to spare him; he is later killed while trying to escape the castle by leaping off the walls:

    O me! my uncle's [John's] spirit is in these stones!
    Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!

  3. The Magna Carta

    Fed up with John's military incompetence, heavy taxation and arbitrary rule, the English barons forced him in 1215 to set his seal to the Magna Carta (Great Charter), which guaranteed that kings were also subject to the law and could not rule as despots. But John had no intention of upholding the agreement, and only his death in 1216 ended the barons' support of the dauphin Louis' new plans for invasion.

    Nonetheless, Magna Carta remained, and became the basis of English Common Law.