John, king of England, third sovereign of the house of Plantagenet, and fourth son of Henry II. and Eleanor of Aquitaine, born in Oxford, Dec. 24, 1166, died Oct. 19, 1216. The surname of Lackland (Sansterre), by which he is often mentioned, was popularly given him because of the small possessions that devolved upon him, while the elder sons were all liberally provided for; and it was "the usual appellation of younger sons, whose fathers died during their minority, and who could not possess estates until they were of age to do the feudal services required for them." When he was seven years old his father bestowed property upon him in England and Normandy. A marriage between him and Alice, eldest daughter of the count of Savoy, was negotiated, but her early death prevented its completion. Henry II. made John lord of Ireland, and he went with a large army to that country in March, 1185, accompanied by his lord deputy, De Lacy, and Gerald Barry (Giraldus Cambrensis), the historian. His behavior was so imprudent that he became the object of almost universal abhorrence, and his father was compelled to recall him to England at the close of the year.
John was Henry's favorite son, but he joined in the repeated rebellions of his brothers; and Henry's death was occasioned by his becoming informed that John's name stood at the head of the list of those barons who had joined Philip Augustus of France against him, though at that very time he was exerting himself to benefit the fortunes of the rebellious prince. Richard I., successor of Henry, bestowed large possessions upon John, then known as earl of Mortaigne, but that did not prevent him from behaving as unfraternally as he had behaved unfilially. Richard departed on his famous crusade, intending that, in case he should die childless, his successor should be Arthur, duke of Brittany, son of his brother Geoffrey, John's senior. "When Richard on his return became a prisoner in Germany, John sought to render his imprisonment perpetual, and to seize the crown, raising forces, and doing homage to Philip Augustus for such portions of Normandy as he had not surrendered to him. He besieged places in England that were held by Richard's friends, asserted that his brother was dead, and demanded his own recognition as king.
He did not succeed, and Richard returned to England in 1194, seized John's castle of Nottingham, and summoned him to take his trial for treason,-he being then in France, whither Richard led an army. At the intercession of their mother, the king pardoned his brother, who remained faithful during the rest of Richard's life. Richard bequeathed to John all his dominions, and most of his treasure, and required that homage should be done him. John experienced little difficulty in obtaining possession of England and Normandy, and was crowned at Rouen, April 25, 1199, and at Westminster, May 27. His accession dates from April 6, but he was not regarded as king of England until he had been crowned. According to the rule of descent, the crown belonged to Arthur, duke of Brittany, and the mother of that prince, Constance, persuaded Philip Augustus to espouse his quarrel. Philip seized Anjou, Touraine, and Maine for Arthur, and he was advancing into Normandy when John arrived there. After some negotiation, war was renewed; but the general of Arthur's forces, finding that the French king was acting for himself alone, effected a reconciliation between John and Arthur, which was of brief duration. The uncle sought to make away with his nephew, who fled back to Philip, accompanied by his mother.
In 1200 a peace was made between John and Philip, the latter acknowledging John as Richard's heir, and forcing Arthur to do him homage for Brittany. John paid a large sum of money to Philip, the collection of which caused much trouble in England. The first demand for the privileges of Magna Charta was made by the barons in May, 1201, and refused, whereupon they declined accompanying him to Paris, which he visited in order to be present at the marriage of his niece with the dauphin, and the king seized their castles. John, who had put away his first wife, Avisa, because they were related within the forbidden degrees, married Isabella, daughter of the count of Angouleme, Aug. 24, 1200. This lady had been betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan, son of the count of La Marche, who challenged John to combat. John offered to fight by his champion, an offer which Lusignan treated with contempt, declaring that the king's champions were bravos. Arthur's claims having been renewed, and insurrections in his favor occurring in Anjou and Maine, Lusignan espoused his cause, and civil war broke out in Poitou and Normandy. Arthur and Lusignan besieged Eleanor of Aquitaine in the castle of Mirebeau, in Poitou, and John hastened to his mother's assistance.
On Aug. 1, 1202, he defeated the besiegers in a pitched battle, killing or capturing them all. Arthur, then in his 16th year, was among the captives. He was imprisoned, and is supposed to have been put to death by his uncle, a belief quite in keeping with John's actions. John was accused by Philip Augustus of the murder, and was summoned to defend himself before the peers of France. He refused to attend, and the court pronounced judgment, that "whereas John, duke of Normandy, in violation of his oath to Philip his lord, had murdered the son of his elder brother, a homager of the crown of France, and had perpetrated the crime within the seignory of France, he was found guilty of felony and treason, and was therefore adjudged to forfeit all the lands which he held by homage." This decree of forfeiture was vigorously put in force by Philip, whose proceedings were aided by the discontent that prevailed in John's French possessions. In 1203 nearly all those possessions except Guienne were taken by Philip, and John fled to England. He had said, on hearing of Philip's captures of towns: "Let him take them, I will one day recover them; the English sterlings will restore all things." This would have been no idle boast had he been a popular monarch in England; but there he was even more detested than he was in France. The name of Lackland was now revived for him.
He landed with an army at La Rochelle in 1206, and took Angers, but then retired. He had received no aid from the English barons, whom he proceeded to fine frequently and heavily; and the archbishop of York cursed the collectors of the fines and left England. Those quarrels now began which ended in the granting of the great charter. John became involved in a contest with the church concerning the election of Cardinal Langton to the see of Canterbury, and Pope Innocent III. laid England under an interdict. The king seized the possessions of the church, and banished those who had occupied them. A bull of excommunication was issued in 1209, and John sought to prevent its promulgation in England, without which it could have no force. His fear was that Philip Augustus would attempt the conquest of England, under papal authority, and he maintained relations with some of that prince's neighbors. In the mean time he compelled William, king of Scotland, to acknowledge his supremacy, and effected conquests in Wales, dictating terms of peace to Prince Llewellyn. He also led a great army to Ireland, where he Curbed the Norman colonists, divided the English possessions into counties, and established there the laws of England. He was guilty of acts of cruelty that shocked the sentiment of even that ferocious age.
Of the captives whom he took in 1202, most of the principal men were starved to death in prison. On an insurrection occurring in Wales, he caused 28 hostages, all young nobles, to be executed. In 1213 the pope solemnly deposed John, and absolved his vassals from their allegiance. The French king prepared to enforce the sentence, and John assembled a numerous army to defend his kingdom; but as he could not rely upon its fidelity, he listened to the arguments of the nuncio, Pandulph, and resigned his kingdom to the pope, whose vassal he became. This act, so degrading to modern ideas, was not viewed so harshly then, and had many precedents; and the barons themselves acknowledged its validity. Pandulph proceeded to France, where he commanded Philip to put an end to his project of invasion, as England had become the patrimony of St. Peter. That monarch endeavored to turn his preparations to account by planning the conquest of Flanders, but he had ultimately to fight for his own dominions at Bovines. John invaded France, but accomplished nothing, though his fleet had previously defeated that of Philip. As he continued his course of misgovernment, a confederacy was formed against him by the nobility, at the head of which stood Archbishop Langton and the earl of Pembroke, and Robert Fitz-Walter commanded its forces.
The king was compelled to submit to the barons, who forced him to make the grant known as Magna Charta, June 15, 1215. (See Magna Charta.) His submission was but momentary; as soon as he could raise a foreign force, aided by the pope, who regarded the barons as rebels against himself, he resumed the war with success. The barons applied to France for aid, offering to make the dauphin Louis king of England. Louis entered England at the head of an army. John was about to fight a battle for his crown, when he lost his baggage, treasure, etc, in "the Wash." This affected his mind, and as he was ill at the time of the loss, his sickness so increased that he soon after died. His death was attributed to poison, and also to dysentery brought on by partaking freely of peaches and new cider. Modern England dates from the reign of John, whose cowardice and imbecility led to the loss of the greater part of the French possessions of his family, and so caused the Norman portion of the inhabitants of the island to regard the English as their countrymen.
He was succeeded by his son Henry III.