- The Crowning of King John in Westminster Abbey - May 27th 1199 -
After the death of his popular brother, Richard I, on April 6th in France from injuries sustained from a crossbow bolt, John quickly seized the treasury at Chinon. He had competition for the throne in the form of his nephew Arthur, of Brittany, the son of his elder brother Geoffrey. Arthur had the better claim but Richard had named John as heir on his deathbed and such was his popularity that the vast majority of barons supported this.
King Phillip Augustus of France had other ideas and supported Geoffrey, seeing this as a way of splitting the extensive Anjevin Empire, which John now ruled. There is much irony in the fact that John ruled such a large expanse of land. He was the final, and fifth, son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his father had no land left to give him. He nicknamed him ‘Sans Terre’ or Lackland, as it was translated. Eventually he was made King of Ireland but his treatment of the local lords was so insulting, he mocked their beards, traditions and language, that he was quickly driven out.
John was never destined to be King but to go into the church. It might have been better all round if this had turned out to be the case. However he was restless and difficult as a child and his other brothers were falling around him. William, Henry and Geoffrey had all died before their father and it was just Richard and John left when Henry died in 1189. Richard took the throne and was, still is, seen as a great warrior King, a very important trait to survive as a monarch in the Middle Ages. At 6 feet 4 inches, dashing and successful Richard was the Medieval ‘Hollywood’ star. John, by contrast was 5 feet 5 inches, normal for that period, but nothing like his beloved and revered brother.
Richard ruled England for ten years and spent less than one year of that rule in England, preferring to fight for much of the rest of his time and enlarge and keep hold of the empire he had inherited from his father. Richard was also the key player in the 3rd Crusade to recapture Jerusalem. He left for the Holy Land in 1190 and after getting within sight of the Holy City was forced to make peace with the Muslim leader, Saladin, in 1191. Whilst returning he was captured by the Duke of Austria, Leopold V, near Vienna. He was later handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, and transferred to Trifels Castle. It was not until February 1194 that he was released for a ransom of 150,000 marks, nearly three times the annual income of the King of England.
During his incarceration John had plotted with King Phillip to take the throne of England. On his return Richard forgave him and the two ruled England until Richard’s untimely death whilst sieging a castle in Chalus. Short of money, after years of neglect and constant fighting, John was forced to raise money by whatever means he could. Increased taxation was never popular and with Phillip, alongside Arthur, attacking his land in France, he constantly needed to fund the defence of his realm.
To make matters worse John became infatuated with Isabella of Angouleme, the twelve-year-old daughter of Count Aymer. The problem was that she was already betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan, the influential French baron. It had been her youth that had delayed this marriage but John now stole her from under Hugh’s nose causing him to join Arthur and Phillip in attacking John. His first marriage to another Isabella, of Gloucester, had been annulled, as she was too close a relative.
In 1203 John captured Arthur at Mirabeau in a rare victory and imprisoned him in Falaise Castle. He attempted to negotiate with Arthur and promised him land if he would split from King Phillip. Arthur responded by demanding what was rightfully his, the throne, and said that he would never let John see peace again in his reign. In panic John is said to have blinded and castrated Arthur. As rumours spread that he had been killed Phillip demanded that Arthur be produced. It would appear that by this time he was already dead and contemporary chroniclers claim that, in a drunken rage, John tied him to a stone, or tree trunk, and threw him in the river Seine.
By 1204 John had lost the lands he had in Aquitaine, Poitou, Anjou and Normandy. The empire was collapsing. A year later he was embroiled in a dispute with the Pope, Innocent III. John refused to sanction the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope excommunicated him. When John then seized church lands, Innocent cast an Interdict over the whole of England. This, in effect, put the church on strike which meant that no-one could be baptised married, have their sins forgiven or be buried, sending the whole nation to hell. Eventually John gave in and was made to pay an annual payment to the Pope of £666.
In 1214 John lost the Battle of Bouvines to the French when he tried to reclaim French lands and the following year the barons had had enough, forcing John to sign the Magna Carta. The English King was now subject to the law. Although this document has gained in significance since then, it was still an important statement. John however, with permission from his overlord, the Pope, refused to carry out the demands of the charter, despite signing it. The barons rose in revolt again and asked Louis, the Dauphin, or heir to the French throne, to invade England in what has become known as the First Barons War. Louis marched to London where he was accepted as King, but never actually crowned. John escaped to Winchester. In June of 1216 Louis captured Winchester and marched to Dover in July but could not capture it. By October, with the world closing in, John died in Newark on 19th, from eating a surfeit of lampreys and peaches, washed down with cider. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral.
With John dead the barons turned on Louis and declared that the nine-year-old Henry, son of John, was to be the new King, no doubt with the knowledge that they could control what he would do. He was crowned on 28th October in Gloucester and again on 17th May 1220 in Westminster Abbey. In 1225 Henry III re-issued a new version of the Magna Carta to confirm the rights granted in 1215.
John has gone down as one of the worst kings in English history, alongside ‘great’ names such as Richard III and Charles I. There cannot be any doubt that he tried to rule in the right way, and organise and administer the country properly. He was unfortunate to come after the superstar Richard I, who not only was a great warrior king but also left his barons to get on and rule themselves. Richard left John with no money in the royal coffers either. However he did lose his argument with the Church, he did lose his argument with the barons and he did lose his lands in France to the French. Perhaps the highpoint for John was indeed his coronation on May 27th 1199.