King John of England: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

King John is a controversial figure in English history, but someone who oversaw great change. In this lesson, we'll explore John's reign and legacy, and see how it impacted medieval England.

King John

Every story has its villains. We love to hate our villains, but is that hate always warranted? In the long story of English history, one character that people continuously identify as a principle villain is King John, who ruled England from 1199 to 1216. You'll most likely recognize him as the antagonist constantly foiled by the English folk hero Robin Hood. However, there was much more to King John's life than chasing arrow-shooting vigilantes across the countryside. Whether you love him, hate him, or love to hate him, King John oversaw England at a critical stage in its history.

King John of England
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Early Life

John was born on Christmas Eve in 1167, the fifth child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Since he was so low on the line of succession, Henry II assumed that there would be no land left to pass onto his youngest son and jokingly referred to him as John Lackland. Whether or not John found this amusing, we'll never know.

John's early years gave him reason to by cynical. He was last in succession, had an unstable temper, and was nearly always in the shadow of an older sibling (most notably his tall and regal brother, Richard the Lionhearted).

However, some of Henry's sons rebelled against him, and John ended up as Henry's favorite. By the time that Richard became king, John was much higher up the line of succession. Richard ended up naming his nephew as the heir apparent, so while the King was off fighting the crusades, John tried to overthrow the royal administrators and claim the throne for himself. This is when the Robin Hood legend takes place. However, Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria and John helped raise the ransom required for Richard's release. When the King returned to England he forgave John for trying to steal his crown. The brothers reconciled, and John was named the immediate successor to the throne.

John as King

Richard died in 1199, and John became King of England. This also made him ruler of the Angevin Empire, which was basically English control of the part of France called Normandy. Unfortunately, John's proud and arrogant personality led to conflict. He had become infatuated with the young French heiress Isabella of Angouleme, and married her despite her being betrothed to a French noble. The French king, Philip Augustus demanded that John submit himself to the French courts to answer for this insult, which John refused to do. War immediately broke out with France. John won some early victories but soon began to loose key points in the continental empire.

The Angevin Empire territories in France
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It should be noted that Philip Augustus had a longstanding policy of messing with England's ruling family. As war began over John's marriage, Philip also began backing John's nephew Arthur as the rightful heir to the English throne.

Arthur started a rebellion, which John squashed. John swore that his nephew was being kept alive in prison, according to the customs, but Philip demanded proof. Arthur was in fact dead, allegedly killed by John in a drunken rage. The English nobles became furious.

By 1206, John had lost control of Normandy and most of the other English holdings in France, as well as the support of the English nobles. He believed that the only way to restore his authority was to ensure the survival of the Angevin Empire, but reconquering Normandy required money. So, John increased taxes and restricted the feudal rights of the nobles.

The Magna Carta

England formally lost the war with France, and Normandy, in 1214. John returned to England to find that the barons, furious with his continual restriction of their rights, had begun organizing against him. In 1215, the rebellious barons had become so powerful that John was forced to listen to their demands. Together, the two sides agreed upon a charter of rights, known to history as the Magna Carta.

John is often best remembered as the king who signed the Magna Carta
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The Magna Carta was, in the loosest sense, the first constitution in English history. It guaranteed certain rights for the barons and the Church, which the king was not allowed to suppress. It also established a basic council of nobles who had legislative authority, which would eventually become the English Parliament. Overall, it introduced the idea of a more defined government, where the King was not the sole source of power.

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