It’s not easy to be misunderstood. Or the youngest – and possibly unwanted – child. Ask John, a.k.a. John Lackland. He would know all about growing up in a dysfunctional family with an anything but warm and fuzzy relationship to his parents and siblings. Mind you, having a tough childhood is an explanation, not an excuse. But still…
Today marks the 800th anniversary of John’s death. Eight hundred years, and still the man is a household name. Not in the most complimentary of terms – John is the bad dude, the man who betrayed his older brother Richard and had his nephew murdered. John is the somewhat unbalanced individual who alienated his nobles by his outrageous and grasping behaviour, and then there’s the matter of the hostages he hanged in Nottingham. No, all in all, John was not the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. Assuming, of course, that the black legend that surrounds him is true. Some of it most definitely is. But is any man entirely black?
Let us start at the beginning. Henry FitzEmpress made the marriage of a generation the day he swept Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from King Louis of France, into his arms and married her. Two larger-than-life personalities, these two were well-suited, possessing drive and determination – and quite the dollop of ambition. Did they love each other? I think that if you’d asked them, they would have given you an amused look in return. When did love come into the equation of building a European powerhouse?
The Henry-Eleanor match was just that: a powerhouse. Together, they controlled a massive empire, all the way from the foggy north of England to the sun-drenched lands of Aquitaine. As we all know, the previously not so fecund Eleanor (with “only” two daughters to her name after 15 years of marriage to Louis) presented her new, vigorous husband with several sons and daughters. These children inherited a lot of characteristics from their strong, driven and ambitious parents, making them – and especially the elder sons – just as strong, driven and ambitious. And hungry for power. Ultimately, this would lead to bloody conflict between the sons and the father, and when Eleanor sided with her sons, the Henry-Eleanor union sort of crashed and burned.
Eleanor was locked away in 1173. Okay, so now and then she emerged from her prison to participate in courtly life and assist her husband in managing certain issues, but she was always accompanied by a guard, a silent reminder that she was a prisoner.
At the time of his mother’s incarceration, John was seven. Until then, he hadn’t exactly seen much of either parent, having instead been raised in his own household. But the bitter feud between Henry II and his older sons had him turning to his younger son, with John accompanying his father as he rode to quell his upstart sons.
Over the coming years, John became his father’s favourite child. Not favourite enough to load with land, though. John’s oldest brother, also as Henry, was designated heir to England and Normany, his second eldest brother, Richard was already the Duke of Aquitaine, brother Geoffrey was lording it in Brittany, and in comparison, John had…Nada. Niente. Nothing.
The easy solution was to find John an heiress. After some scouting, Henry decided on Isabella, daughter of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To make the match even better, Henry disinherited Isabella’s two sisters, making her the sole heiress to her father’s lands. There was, however, a teeny, weensy problem: John and Isabella were third cousins, so the union required a papal dispensation. A matter to be handled later, Henry decided, settling for a betrothal in 1176 instead. John was all of ten, the bride-to-be around three.
A year or so later, Henry made John Lord of Ireland. John Lackland was no longer lacking in land, one could say, albeit that the territory the eleven-year-old was to rule was considered a savage place. Plus, Ireland already had a number of powerful local lords, both of Norman and Gaelic extraction.
In 1183, John’s eldest brother died of dysentery, this after a campaign against the joint forces of Henry II and brother Richard. With that, Richard took a giant step towards the throne of England, but showed no inclination of wanting to part with Aquitaine. Rather, Richard seems to have reasoned Aquitaine was his, full stop, and anything on top of that was also his, with no need to share with baby brother John – or Geoffrey.
In 1186, Geoffrey died from injuries incurred during a tournament. He left behind a young son, and as Richard had neither wife nor legitimate son, little Arthur was now second in line to the English throne. In John’s opinion, he should be second in line: given the choice between a puling child and a well-grown young man, only a fool would choose the child.
Not everyone agreed. By now, some of John’s more dislikeable traits were causing concern. While on the one side John was intelligent, well-educated, courageous and charming when he so wanted, there was that other side to him, the one that flew into tantrums, that was spiteful and petty, that had him taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.
John comes across a spoiled brat, a young man who considers himself entitled, and who would have benefited from a good thrashing. Papa Henry, however, spent more times making excuses for his temperamental son than in lecturing him. Henry was paying the price of having led a life constantly on the move, always entangled in one conflict of the other. He was tired, somewhat careworn after losing two of his sons, and had no desire whatsoever to alienate his favourite.
In looks, John was very much his father’s son – short and powerfully built, with a fondness for opulent clothes and jewels. (In this, he does not seem to have taken after daddy, who comes across as relatively uninterested in fashion) An avid reader, John always travelled with an extensive library, and was extremely fond of hunting. He was a skilled horseman, was appreciative of good music (from his mother’s side, no doubt) and enjoyed board games. He was also capable and hard-working, traits that somehow get lost in the overall descriptions of him.
Anyway: in 1189, Richard allied himself with Philip Augustus and made war on his father. Why? Because he was worried Henry might be considering naming John as his heir. Henry was sick, he was old, and everything pointed at him losing – which was when John abandoned him, riding like the devil to join brother Richard and ingratiate himself with him. Henry died, alone. Richard was less than impressed by his brother’s behaviour – plus I imagine Richard suffered some pangs of guilt due to having indirectly caused his father’s death.
Richard was now king – a restless king, eager to ride off and heap himself with glory in the Third Crusade. Richard was savvy enough to realise John could very well become a problem during his absence, and so he set about buying John’s favour. John was made Count of Mortain, his marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was pushed through, and he was heaped with honours and riches, the king’s most beloved brother.
This didn’t help. No sooner was Richard off, but John began his scheming. Now, what is important to remember is that not everyone in England was all that thrilled by the idea of having a crusading king. Crusades were expensive things, and financing was acquired by increasing taxes, which did not exactly endear Richard to his English subjects. In difference to Richard, John had spent a lot of time in England, knew the people and the country. He could therefore play on their ambivalence, thereby securing quite some support. To further strengthen his position, he allied himself with Philip Augustus of France.
When Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land, John likely did a few capers of joy. Those in England remaining true to Richard must have been torn between their loyalties to the king and the need to curry favour with the heir – because in the eyes of the English, John was the heir, Arthur or no Arthur. This is when formidable mama Eleanor waded into the fray, ensuring everyone knew what was what – i.e. the English nobility were taxed with amassing the huge ransom required to buy Richard free. To do so, the taxed nobles taxed the people – not, I imagine, a popular move.
We all know Richard came back. Robin Hood and his Merry Men made even merrier, the Sheriff of Nottingham gnashed his teeth – even more so, one presumes, after Richard besieged and took the castle – and John fled to Normandy. Some months later, Richard found him, and although he forgave his brother, he stripped him of all his lands but Ireland. Humiliated and substantially poorer, John had no choice but to bend knee to paragon brother Richard. For the following years, John served his king loyally and capably – so capably that Richard restored his lands to him.
And then Richard died. A crossbow quarrel to the armpit, and England’s most famous warrior king (well, bar Henry V. And maybe Edward III) died. His mama cried. His brother, not so much. John had finally come into his own, the only potential fly in his ointment being nephew Arthur, no longer a baby but a handsome twelve-year-old, backed by his overlord Philip Augustus of France. (As an aside, Philip Augustus does not come across as the nicest of men, switching his support this way and that, depending on what suited him best. Probably needs his own post…)
John was acclaimed by his nobles in England and Normandy, was crowned in Westminster, and crossed the Channel to address the issue of Arthur. He did so by signing a treaty with Philip, who promptly abandoned Arthur. Some years later, Arthur raised his banners in rebellion against his uncle. This time, John captured him. In 1203, Arthur disappeared into the bowels of the Castle of Rouen. He was never seen again…
Obviously, John was the party who most benefited from Arthur’s disappearance. Early on, accusations of murder were made, and much later in the reign, Maude de Braose was to publicly accuse John of having killed his own nephew. That didn’t end well for Maude, who by all accounts died in an oubliette, having first attempted to still her hunger by gnawing on her dead son’s body.
By 1204, John had acquired quite the lurid legend: a number of bastards with various women, some very high-born, the whole thing with Arthur, his repeated betrayal of his brother, his last-minute abandonment of his father, and the dismal treatment of the prisoners he took in the wake of Arthur’s rebellion, resulting in several deaths. And then there was the whole thing with his second wife, where he claimed the supposedly gorgeous Isabella of Angouleme, ignoring the fact that the girl was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. (Before this, he’d annulled his first marriage – but kept the lands)
Some say John was immediately besotted by little Isabella. Others say Isabella came with lands that would strengthen John’s position in France. Whatever the case, she was spoken for, but John convinced Isabella’s father to ignore his previous promises, and Isabella became a very young and pretty queen. Hugh de Lusignan became an angry rebel, and ultimately the marriage cost John huge chunks of his French lands. In the fullness of time, Isabella would return to France and the arms of a Hugh de Lusignan, in this case the eldest son of her former fiancé. In the in between, however, she was to present John with five children whom he seems to have doted on.
By 1204, John had also lost most of his French patrimony, with the exception of Aquitaine. This obliged him to concentrate his efforts in England. John was no sloth: he worked hard, with a special interest in reforming the legal system. Upsides of the new system was that free men were no longer at the mercy of the barons’ administration of justice. Through the introduction of legal experts, coroners and judges, John revamped the entire system, motivated no doubt by a desire to reform, but also by the financial rewards the system brought – legal fees increased, filling the king’s coffers.
The king’s coffers needed refilling. John was determined to retake Normandy, and to do so, he needed money – lots of money. So he increased taxes, charged his nobles huge amounts to allow them to succeed to properties and castles they had inherited. Widows wanting to remain widows were charged substantial fees to be allowed to do so, warships were sold as were appointments, fines were increased, fees were increased, and all in all, John made himself very unpopular – especially among the wealthy.
And then there was the matter with the pope. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John wanted to replace him with his candidate. The pope instead ordained Stephen Langton, and John threw a hissy fit. After all, he was within his rights to have a say in who became archbishop. Nope, the pope retorted. Stephen was it, take it or leave it. John chose to leave it, closing his harbours to Stephen and seizing the lands of the archbishopric. What followed was a long period of spiritual war. In the end, John caved – an excommunicated king was in some ways a powerless king – but he did so with style and cunning, gaining a stalwart supporter in the pope.
War, interdiction, taxes, fees, fines…John’s barons had had it. The final straw came when John lost to the French in the Battle of Bouvines, thereby permanently losing Normandy. Not that John’s northern barons gave a fig about Normandy, but they were sick and tired of levied scutage, of taxes and fees, that had left them all severely indebted to the king. The Barons’ revolt was therefore far more motivated by personal interests than any desire to better the cause of the Englishman in general. Truth be told, the barons probably didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Englishman either…
No matter all those personal interests, the Magna Charta went beyond these, and presented a new framework for government, with a council of barons to guide the king, rules regarding a free man’s right to justice, to protection from illegal imprisonment. Taxes were no longer to be a royal prerogative, but required approval from the barons. The Magna Charta defined and contained the rights and obligations of the king, a charter designed to curb the royal excesses by empowering the nobles. A first, if small, step towards representative government, if you will…
In 1215, John signed the Magna Charta – with his fingers crossed. The moment he could, he appealed to the pope for support, and the Holy Father responded by excommunicating the rebel barons. And just like that, England was plunged into civil war. The French invaded, invited by some of the rebel barons. This actually played into John’s hands – the English were no fans of the French. John was a skilled commander, and had the money on hand to pay for substantial mercenaries, but then his entire treasure was lost crossing the Wash close to King’s Lynn. Even worse, he’d contracted dysentery. A sick king, making his way towards the west. An impoverished king, what with all that treasure lost in the sea.
He arrived in Newark and took to bed. In the night between 18-19 of October, John died. He was all of fifty years old, leaving an embattled throne to his nine-year-old son, Henry. Some sources insinuate he was poisoned. Others that he splurged on peaches. I’m guessing it was the dysentery that killed him – just as it had once killed his older brother. Like his father, John died without the comfort of his family around him. Unlike his father, he has constantly been vilified since.
I remain ambivalent to John. Through the centuries he comes across as highly intelligent, sardonic and somewhat twisted. Was he rapacious? Oh, yes. Immoral? On various occasions. But he was also a hard-working king, a man who drove through reforms to the legal system, a caring father, and a man who counted among his friends the future saint, Hugh of Lincoln. He inspired the loyalty of people like Nicolaa de la Haye and her husband, Gerard de Camville. Surely, he wasn’t all bad. In fact, I’m quite sure he wasn’t. After all, no one is. I hope.