King John

King John
Portrait of King John hunting, British Library

Biography

King John (1199–1216) is best remembered for granting Magna Carta in June 1215, although he sought its annulment almost immediately. The youngest son of Henry II, John succeeded his brother, Richard I, as King of England in 1199. His reign was marked by a string of unsuccessful military campaigns, a prolonged struggle with the Church and the baronial rebellion which led to Magna Carta.

John exploited his feudal rights to extort money from the barons: he set taxes at very high levels, he enforced arbitrary fines and he seized the barons’ estates. John used this income to fund his expensive wars in France, but still he failed to hold together the empire created by his father.

John was an efficient and able administrator, but he was also unpredictable and aggressive. He disregarded justice when dealing with opponents, regularly taking hostages and imposing ruthless punishments.

His conflict with the Church led to his excommunication. The annulment of Magna Carta by Pope Innocent III in August 1215, at John’s request, led to a renewal of the baronial revolt which was still raging when John died in October 1216.

Related articles

Magna Carta: people and society

Article by:

Who were the key personalities in the history of Magna Carta? Find out more about King John, the barons, Pope Innocent III, Archbishop Stephen Langton and the other individuals and groups who played important roles.

Magna Carta and jury trial

Article by:
Geoffrey Robertson
Theme:
Magna Carta today

Geoffrey Robertson QC charts the history of jury trials and their relationship to Magna Carta. From medieval justice to the trial of Charles I, and the trials of John Lilburne to the Human Rights Act, discover the evolution of one of the most venerated features of Anglo-American law.

Empire and after

Article by:
Zoë Laidlaw
Theme:
Legacy

The British Empire lasted more than 300 years and spanned the globe. During this time, Magna Carta was used by imperialists to justify global ambition and by indigenous people to demand liberty and justice. Dr Zoe Laidlaw considers the significance of Magna Carta in relation to imperialism.