King John died on the night of 18 (or early morning of the 19th) October 1216, during a monstrous thunderstorm. This was probably nothing more than a coincidence, but for his contemporaries it was considered an indication that Hell had opened to received the blackened, twisted soul of this vile king. After all, this was a monarch who committed multiple crimes against humanity – who starved men, women, and children to death in his dungeons to punish or coerce their families – and it seemed reasonable that Satan himself would open his gates to welcome one of his own.
Most of the things that people know about King John from the legends of Robin Hood are false, but that doesn’t mean John was slandered. If anything, the imagination didn’t go far enough in depicting the villainies of this king! He was a bad ruler, but he was an even worse person. Not only did John murder for political gain, he enjoyed hurting people. He was greedy, spiteful, cruel, disloyal, petty, and chickenshit. He stole from his own kinsmen and betrayed anyone foolish enough to trust him. He was also accused numerous times of rape, the go-to crime of a cowardly bully.
Seriously, he probably hunted so often because his dogs were the only living beings that were familiar with him but didn’t actively despise him.
John had no more honor and decency than a flea. He was Henry II’s favorite child (psychopaths are often charmers), but joined in his brother Richard’s rebellion against their father the minute it looked like Richard would win. Later, when King Richard was captured and held captive in 1192, John would turn his coat once more and form an alliance with the French king Philip II in an attempt to steal his brother’s kingdom. If Philip would support the attempted coup, John offered to divorce his wife, Isabel, Countess of Gloucester, and marry Philip’s sister, Alys, the former fiancée of John’s brother Richard and the former child-mistress of their father, Henry II. When Richard was freed and came back to England, John was too spineless to fight, but he groveled until he was forgiven for his treachery.
After Richard’s death in 1199, John murdered his nephew Arthur, the rightful heir to the crown, to become king and then he nearly destroyed England via taxation to fight wars he seldom won. If anyone, noble or commoner, protested his tyranny, he tortured them or their family members to death. In one of the most famous examples, when William de Braose (who was as repugnant as King John, to tell the truth) refused to pay an inordinate tax and fled to France, John captured de Braose’s wife, Maud de St. Valery, and their eldest son William, then starved them to death to punish de Braose.
Just as bad, from a Medieval perspective, was the fact that his personal cowardice and ineptitude managed to lose most of the Angevin Empire’s lands in continental Europe, earning him the monikers Lackland and Softsword.
In 1200, he annulled his first marriage and wed Isabella of Angoulême, the young betrothed of Hugh IX of Lusignan, whom he had kidnapped. She was possibly as young as 9 years old when John married her. In fairness to the king, his bride wouldn’t give birth for another 7 years, so perhaps he didn’t consummate his union while Isabella was still a child, but many contemporary chroniclers insisted that he had. Isabella would bear the king 5 legitimate children, who all survived to adulthood, but John also had at least a dozen acknowledged illegitimate offspring: nine sons and three daughters.
It is unsurprising that there were multiple rebellions against John, including the Welsh uprising of 1211 by Llywelyn the Great, in spite of the fact that Llywelyn was married to one of John’s illegitimate daughters, Joan. Unhappiness with John’s rule also led to the First Barons’ War among the English, who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
Before the conflict between John and his barons could be resolved, the king died of dysentery. His eldest son by Queen Isabella was crowned King Henry III and guarded by William Marshal, who had remained loyal to his oath to the crown despite of John’s vicious behavior. Marshal defeated the rebel barons at the battles of Lincoln and Sandwich in 1217, giving Henry III a kingdom to go with his crown and title.
In contrast to his father, Henry III would be renown for his piety and religious devotion, but like his father, Henry III was a crap king. It was John’s grandson and Henry’s son, Edward Longshanks, who would combine the barbarism of John with the righteousness of Henry to become one of the strongest, most effective, and most brutal monarchs in British history.