Study Guide

King John of England in Magna Carta

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

King John of England

800 Years of Total Unpopularity

King John of England is portrayed in the 1973 Disney version of Robin Hood as a thumb-sucking lion who's detested for over-taxation and general cruelty.

The real King John was probably not an anthropomorphic lion (although his face on coins does appear very lion-esque) and history has sadly forgotten whether he liked to suck his thumb after the age of two. But other than those minor embellishments, the movie isn't actually all that far off. John was not well liked, and he really did tax people too much while being mean in a variety of ways.

John Proves His Dead Family Dead Wrong

Although, to be fair, John's whole family was pretty nasty.

His dad, Henry II, was king of England—plus a whole bunch of stuff, like half of France—so he had this harebrained scheme of splitting up his kingdom between his sons. But he had five of 'em. And it seems like maybe he wasn't so good at division, because he basically decided that John (male heir #5) wouldn't actually get anything.

Thanks, dad.

Henry's plan resulted in turning normal sibling rivalry into a major war. John's older brothers fought against each other and their father until Richard (male heir #4) was the last man standing, and the new king.

Lucky for John, Richard wasn't really into the whole governing thing or the whole having kids thing. But he was into the whole starting wars thing. He gathered up a ton of money, left England, and went on crusade—instructing John to take care of England.

John immediately started scheming to oust Richard, a plan he didn't end up needing because Richard died on crusade and left John as the winner of this season's hit show: Plantagenet Death Match.

So now John was finally free to prove himself as king and…he lost it all.

He lost the Plantagenet family's territory in France, he lost a standoff with the Pope, and he (eventually) lost England as an absolute monarchy by ticking off the wrong band of barons.

Yeah, there really isn't much good that we can say about John's reign. He was solidly unpopular for a long list of reasons, most of which are included in the Magna Carta.

So instead let's take a look at his personal life.

The Sordid Affairs of King John

He eloped with his first wife without permission…which he really should have asked for because a) she was his cousin and b) even at a time when that sort of thing was common she was still forbidden. (Gross.)

After getting an annulment from his cousin-wife, he remarried a French girl who was already engaged to someone else, helping spark the Anglo-French War of 1202-1214. (Clearly, by the 1200s England and France had already had so many wars that they'd run out of creative titles for them.)

Oh: and John's French bride was barely old enough to be considered a pre-teen. Even at a time when that was all too common, she was still considered too young. (Gross again.)

But the fun John-is-gross-when-it-comes-to-women facts don't stop there. He had so many mistresses and illegitimate children that even at a time when that sort of thing was common, his behavior seemed excessive.

Ugh. Let's not look at his personal life anymore.

The Magna Carta, A.k.a. John's Big Fat Lie

King John's methods of governing were so infuriating that a group of angry English nobles and bishops starting an uprising that was just threatening enough that they got the king to sit down with them and agree to their demands in the Magna Carta.

But he had no intention of ever doing anything that it said. He was just stalling until he was ready to fight off the rebel barons.

Right after they all left Runnymede King John said, essentially, "Just kidding! That doesn't count because you forced me." This started the First Baron's War of 1215-1217. And guess who lost? The tax-lovin', nasty-relationship-having King John.

And he lost badly. Not only did he die, but also with time the barons wound up getting almost everything they asked for in the Magna Carta…and so did a lot of countries around the world. King John's plot of signing some papers about restructuring the government to make the barons wait around while he built up his army (just one of his many political schemes) wound up being his greatest legacy. Even though he didn't mean a word of it.

Perhaps the most telling indication of King John's legacy is the fact that he is the only English king named John. Every generation of the English royal family for centuries has posthumously burned King John by not naming their sons after the guy who lost them absolute power.

Because that's a grudge you hang on to.