From 1199 to 1216, the English throne was occupied by King John. He's most remembered for signing the famed Magna Carta and being a terrible king – and a terrible person, come to that.
Despite growing up as part of the reigning family of England, John's upbringing wasn't particularly joyful. He was the last of 8 children born to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. By that time, his parents had no significant lands left to grant him. In fact, he became known as ‘Lackland'. Iron really, seeing as he was later to become King of England.
At the age of nine, his father arranged for John to be betrothed to his second cousin, Isabella of Gloucester, who was a wealthy heiress. John was his father's favourite son and he hoped that the marriage would improve John's prospects. The marriage was carried out when John reached 21 – it proved to be a loveless marriage and without children.
John Takes the Throne
John's brother, Richard I, was known as the Lionheart and was beloved for his bravery in battle. During Richard's reign, he was often out of the country fighting battles. Despite the fact that it was his nephew, Arthur, who was destined to be the next king, John took the opportunity to interfere in England whenever Richard was out of the country. When Richard was dying, he left the throne to John, rather than Arthur. Now the reigning monarch, John wasted very little time before imprisoning Arthur in a bid to remove the threat he posed. In fact, it was believed that the new king murdered Arthur himself.
He also divorced Isabella of Gloucester when he ascended the throne. He managed to get the unhappy union annulled as he and Isabella were too closely related.
In another unpopular move, John became infatuated with the 12-year-old Isabella of Angouleme, who was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan at the time. With the help of Isabella's father, who quite possibly saw it as an opportunity to form an alliance with the King of England, John travelled to France and married her in 1200.
King John's Reign
Through John's reign, he had many issues with the church and was even excommunicated by the pope. Partially thanks to his decision to steal Isabella of Angouleme away from High de Lusignan, he also fought many wars with France. He ended up losing much of England's territory in France, like Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Touraine – yet another fact that made him less than popular in England. He desperately wanted to win them back, but big battles required big money. To fund his fights, he upped taxes, becoming extremely callous in the handling of England's finances.
The Magna Carta
The barons became infuriated with John's treacherous way of running the country. In order to avoid a revolt led by the barons, John was forced into signing the Magna Carta, a charter that would go down in history.
In June 1215, dignitaries gathered at a meadow called Runnymede in the county of Surrey, where King John signed the document. It gave the church independence, limited royal power, and restated English Law, preventing unreasonable taxes and punishment without trial.
Despite the Magna Carta, the barons were still in uproar and the country entered into civil war. The barons rebelled against John once again, enlisting the help of Louis Capet, the son of King Philip II of France. Along with his army, Louis settled into London and Winchester, with the intent of taking over as king. With little support, John retreated. He travelled with his treasures, wanting to keep it safe, but on its journey through marshes near Norfolk, it was washed away by an unexpected incoming tide.
Severely ill with dysentery at the time and now without the power of his riches, the king was taken to Newark Castle. John died at the age of 49 on the 18th of October 1216 – rumours abounded that he was poisoned – and his body was buried at Worchester Cathedral, near to his favourite saint, St. Wulfstan.
He left behind a mess for his first son, who was now to become King Henry III while he was still a minor.
John was far from a popular king, no doubt about it. But part of his awful reputation stems from the history books that were tainted by the words of those rattled by the king's disagreements with the church.
Looking objectively, John did manage to accomplish, or at least attempt to accomplish, a number of things that his celebrated brother, Edward Lionheart, had neglected. He made moves to build up the country's navy and at least attempted to upkeep a good economy. That said, there's no arguing that he was a treacherous, heartless and cruel person, with countless faults.