Picture: King John signing the Magna Charta.
John was born on Christmas Eve 1167. His parents drifted apart after his birth and his childhood was divided between his eldest brother Henry's house where he learned the art of knighthood and the house of his father's justiciar, Ranulf Glanvil, where he learned the business of government. As the fourth child, inherited lands were not available to him and this gave rise to his nickname Lackland. His first marriage to Isabella of Gloucester lasted only ten years and was fruitless but his second wife, Isabella of Angouleme, bore him two sons and three daughters one of whom was called Joan, she married Alexander II King of Scotland who was the son of King William I "the Lion."
John was sent to Ireland as governor but had to be recalled on account of his insolence to the Irish chiefs but despite this Henry II made provisions for his youngest son and when his older brother Richard became king in July 1189 he carried out their fathers wishes. John was made Count of Mortain, which placed him amongst the higher ranks of the Norman barons, but this did not provide him with much income so Richard arranged for John to marry the great heiress, Isabella of Gloucester. She brought with her the Earldom of Gloucester, which made John one of the greatest barons in England and gave him a substantial income. However, there was to be more. John was also granted the honours of Peveril (Derbyshire), Tickhill and Lancaster, two manors in Suffolk, land in Northamptonshire, the profits of Sherwood Forest and the Forest of Andover in Wiltshire. Then, before the end of the year he received the counties of Nottingham, Derby, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with the vill of Nottingham and its honour. Richard's grants to John virtually created a kingdom within a kingdom and it was hoped that this would satisfy John and keep him quiet when Richard left on crusade.
While Richard was out of the country on Crusade and in prison in the Holy Land, William Brewer the great Judge who was the Regent of King Richard I and a sheriff of Nottingham obtained for himself a farm in the Royal Forest of the Peak. Quoting from the history of the Peak, "It would seem also that there was a settled conviction or design known to King John and his friends that King Richard should be kept in prison, for if there had been any idea that the King was going to be released William Brewer would not have dared to take such a property to himself, especially in the time of such a monarch as Richard I." Such was John's loyalty to his brother.
In 1199AD when Richard Lionhearted died, John claimed the dukedom of Normandy and then the crown of England. The only possible challange to John was his nephew Arthur who was the prince of Brittany. The French chose Arthur and England chose John. The northern provinces of France now felt a unity with the kingdom of France rather than England. When John returned to France and found that his lands had been given to Arthur he immediately declared war on Arthur and surprised him at Mirebeau. Arthur died while being held prisoner by John in 1203AD and it is suspected that he was murdered on the orders of his uncle John. The Bretons were outraged by the murder of their duke and the French united against John who was forced to return to England at the end of 1203 allowing Philip to claim all his French territories. The death of his mother in 1204 removed the last restraining influence on his crimes and follies and within a year John had lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. Gradually his subjects became more and more disaffected by his rule.
When Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury died The Pope chose Cardinal Stephen Langton to replace him but King John objected to The Popes nomination and seized Church lands. Then in 1208AD The Pope put England under an "Interdict," meaning that all churches were kept locked and no services were held except for the baptism of infants and confession for the dying, then two years later The Pope excommunicated King John. The issue was not resolved until 1213AD when John learning that the Pope had given the French King the authority to remove him by force surrendered to the wishes of Pope Innocent III and accepted Langton as the new archbishop of Canterbury. He then had to pay homage to The Pope acknowledging himself as the Pope’s vassal (tenant) and pay the Pope a yearly tribute.
His tyranny at home continued and his defeat at Bouvines (1214) and the loss of Poitou stirred the barons to revolt. They mustered a powerful force, and led by the Archbishop Stephen Langton they marched against the king demanding a charter of liberties. John met the barons at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 and put the royal seal upon the Magna Charta. It is said that when King John granted the Great Charter, he smiled and sp