Moonday’s Heroic Hunk in History: John Lackland, the Anti-hero

Winston Churchill said about King John Lackland, this week’s Anti-Hero, “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns.”  

King John Lackland was the last child born to of King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine before they went their separate ways in 1167. His father gave him his first epithet, “Lackland,” because most of the vast Angevin Empire that included England, Ireland, Normandy, Poitou, Gascony and Aquitaine had already been promised to his older brothers. 

John was his father’s favorite and King Henry did the best he could for him. His father arranged a marriage with an English heiress, Isabel of Gloucester, in 1189.Henry gave Ireland to John to rule but that lasted only eight months before he returned home with the Irish ready to rebel. Despite his father’s generosity, John joined his brothers in several rebellions against their father because they didn’t want to wait for their inheritance. In the midst of one of the rebellions, King Henry died attended only by one of his bastard sons. His dying comment about his sons was “They were the bastards.” 

Oscar Issac as John


Since his older brothers, Henry and Geoffrey, had already died, Richard who was childless and probably gay inherited the throne. He left on a Crusade to free the Holy Land and was captured on his way home and ransomed. John had already risen in rebellion against Richard and had allied himself with the French King but his brother forgave him and made him his heir. Richard’s absence on crusade gave rise to the Robin Hood stories when John usurped his brother’s authority and misrule reigned. 

In 1199 Richard died of an infected wound and John was crowned King. But John’s nephew, Arthur, had a better claim to the throne as a descendent of  Henry’s older son Geoffrey. John eventually captured and blinded/castrated/murdered Arthur, depending on the report. Anyway, Arthur disappeared. He was loved by his French subjects who rebelled and sought the aid of the French King. About the same time, John met Isabella of Angoulême, the 12-year-old daughter of the Count of Angouleme and kidnapped her from her fiancé, Hugh X of Lusignan. He divorced his wife who was childless and married Isabella. Her parents who were John’s French vassals also appealed to King Louis. Eventually, King Phillippe II declared John’s French possessions forfeit. 

John's Tomb Effigy


Now we come to John’s lesser known second epithet, “Soft Sword,” which he earned because of his lack of prowess in battle. (At only 5′ 6″ John lacked the stature of his relatives.)  King John spent the rest of his reign trying-unsuccessfully-to regain his French possessions, often at the expense of his English subjects and the Church. Known for his Angevin temper and cruelty, John lost the loyalty of his barons and the Church because of his ill-treatment of his subjects. For example, while it was not unusual for the lady of the castle to assist an honored guest with his bath, John demanded more. One noble who substituted a prostitute in John’s bed for his wife was forced to flee his own castle when the ruse was discovered. The Church who had their own issues with appointments excommunicated John for trying to put his own followers in Church positions. 

Which brings us to Runnymede in 1215 and the Magna Carta. The Church and powerful nobles united to force King John to sign the Magna Carta which left Church matters in Church hands, provided for fair taxes and guaranteed that freemen could only be prosecuted for crimes under common law. 


When John refuted the document within the year, the French Prince Louis invaded England at the invitation of the nobles. On the run, King John safely crossed an area known as The Marsh in East Anglia. His baggage which included the crown jewels, however, was lost to the incoming tide. King John died of dysentery (the runs) soon after. His nine-year-old son, Henry, was crowned King with one of his mother’s golden collars. King John was buried in Worcester Cathedral and his heart was buried at Fontevraux with his brother Richard and their parents.   

If there could be a happily ever after to this story, it would be for Queen Isabella who returned to her homeland, discovered that her childhood sweetheart was single, and married him immediately. They had a large family and lived happily ever after. Next week, John and Isabella’s son-King Henry III-will be next Moonday’s Heroic Hunk in History. RitaVF


3 Responses

  1. Another great post. Had a relative at Runnemede.

    It sure was a bloody time- “uneasy rests the crown” (to paraphrase) is so appropriate for those times. Poor Arthur to be treated thus just because of a superior claim.

  2. Painlessly informative, as usual. A rare talent indeed!

    Familial trust had to be something there was very little of in those days. Hard to imagine living that way. How much harder it had to be for their countrymen to shift loyalties so drastically and often!

    Still have to thank old Johnny-boy for preface to our Magna Carta, even if he was of less than stellar character!

  3. Hate to shorten and exclude interesting (al least to me) stuff. Life was harsh under John. When Arthur, Duke of Brittany, was captured so was his young sister Eleanor who was known as the Fair Maid of Brittany. She was imprisoned in Corfe Castle in Dorset until she died in 1241. No life at all. Poor girl. RitaVF

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