Lackland aka King John I of England


By Gaius Colinius

There have been unpopular kings of England. There have been bad kings of England. There have even been kings who might have been suitable if they had only reigned in a different era but when it comes down to it, no king is reviled as much as King John or “John Lackland” [or “Softsword” if you prefer].

Unlike some other kings of the period, John was highly educated and was reputedly an able administrator as well as being interested in law & governance. Also, John’s employment of an extremely able Chancellor and clerks resulted in the first proper set of records – the Pipe Rolls.

Wasn’t it therefore unfortunate that his character flaws defined the quality of his reign? He was treacherous, suspicious of others and they also suspected him. His lack of judgement was appalling and he was incapable of inspiring any loyalty in his subjects, unlike his brother who was also a poor king but didn’t inspire a fraction of the revulsion that Lackland did.

His one special talent was making enemies. He did this almost at will. In 1185, his father who considered John his favourite sent him to rule Ireland under the title “Lord of Ireland”. Only eight months later he returned to England, having alienated his subjects in Ireland and run foul of powerful Anglo-Norman Barons like Hugh De Lacy.

The story is told that upon his arrival in Ireland, John and his retinue were greeted by numerous unnamed Gaelic Irish leaders. It is said that upon seeing these strange long bearded Kings, John and his retinue laughed and pulled them about by their beards! We are told by Gerald that the Irish then complained to their overlords – men such as Rory O’Connor – of how John was, “an ill-mannered child… from whom no good could be hoped”

As first appearances go, this was probably not the best way to garner favour among potential subjects. Coming home with his tail between his legs also did not do his reputation much good in England.

Then he schemed to supplant his brother Richard’s Justicar while the Lionheart was away on crusade. This put him into conflict with his own brother, the king and upon Richard’s return, he was forced to hide in the shadows for the next five years until Richard himself died. It is instructive to note that despite Richard’s ruinous taxes for his crusade, his supporters were only too happy to fork out even more money to pay Richard’s ransom rather than have John as their king. Better the devil they knew…

Not one to change his spots, once he was king John then picked a quarrel with the Church and England was placed under an interdict in 1207 with John actually being excommunicated two years later. The episode arose out of a dispute over the candidate for the Archbishop of Canterbury. While John might originally actually have been in the right, his stubborn refusal to back down or compromise resulted in a humiliating climb-down as Pope Innocent III got his way and England ended up having to pay tribute as well as become the Pope’s vassal to add insult to injury.

Then you have the episode with Arthur of Brittany, John’s nephew. Before Richard went gallivanting off to the holy land, he made the then four-year-old Arthur his heir. This situation was resolved to John’s satisfaction when Richard nominated John as his heir on his deathbed and you would have expected the problem to die down at that point but no, a petty dispute with a Baron caused a war and the loss of most of his French territories.

While the lack of an heir was a pressing problem, his choice of bride after the annulment of his first marriage was not a wise one as Isabella of Angoul√™me was already engaged to Hugh X of Lusignan and Hugh appealed to the king of France Phillipe II [who was technically John’s liege lord] to intervene. John was duly summoned to France but did not appear causing a war in his French possessions with Arthur making a claim to the English throne as the son of John’s deceased older brother. John managed to capture Arthur and although his exact fate is not known, it is clear that he was executed. This caused almost all the French nobles to turn against him and is regarded as his greatest crime.

Phillipe II was then able to capture Normandy and John’s reign never recovered from this blow which was a high price to pay for a choice of bride.

His calamitous defeat at Bouvaines in the second French campaign sealed his fate and the Magna Carta was signed under duress from his own lords and barons. It was with some relief that he did the kingdom an enormous favour and died shortly after.

As AA Milne wrote:
King John was not a good man
He had his little ways
And sometimes nobody talked to him
For days and days and days