King John, the only English monarch of that name, has become a by-word for monarchical cruelty and excess. This is due in no small part to the most popular portrayal of John in modern culture: as the cowardly, scrawny lion in the Disney animated film Robin Hood (1973). Peter Ustinov’s voice-acting bravura brought John to vivid life – wearing his brother’s over-large crown and swamped in ermine robes, ‘Prince John’ is alternately cruel and pathetic, sucking his thumb whenever his mother is mentioned, taxing his subjects most cruelly, and locking up whoever he pleases. Whilst the plot is resolved by the return of King Richard (depicted contrastingly as a lion with a full, glorious mane), the film also makes some other interesting historical allusions – for example, explaining Richard’s absence from England due to his hypnosis by Sir Hiss the reptilian advisor. But regardless, the image of King John is set: squatting the throne unjustly, and exercising its power arbitrarily for his own ends.

‘Prince John’ sucking his thumb at the mention of his mother, as depicted in Disney’s 1973 film Robin Hood – voiced by Peter Ustinov. (via D23 Official Fanclub)

But is this portrayal accurate? Obviously, the real Prince John was not a scruffy lion cub, but rather a complex and flawed person who was born into an Angevin empire that was at constant war with itself – both internationally on the Continent, and between the King and his barons. John was born into one of the most complicated families in history, and the constant struggles between all of his close family members left their mark. It’s hard to see Prince John as anything but an unusually cruel and incompetent ruler, from losses in wars with France to the probable murder of his own nephew – but the real history beneath the animations and caricatures sheds light on a violent and cynical political culture which made Prince John’s cruel rule inevitable.

An Empire at the Crossroads

John was born on Christmas Eve, 1166 CE, as the youngest son and last child of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As we saw in deep dive into the life of King Henry II, through his marriage to Eleanor and judicious use of force against the French monarchy, Henry had assembled a truly vast empire in Western Europe: stretching from the Scots borders in the north of England, to the Gascon Pyrenees in the south. But although modern historians refer to this as the ‘Angevin empire’ (after Henry II’s heritage from the Counts of Anjou), it was nothing like a unified modern state. Dozens of varied legal structures and local customs abounded, with the whole only unified by their personal feudal allegiance to Henry and his heirs – thus, Henry spent almost his entire reign travelling across his vast domains from one region to the next to dispense justice and receive obedience in an exhausting attempt to exercise traditional medieval kingship everywhere all at once. It would be an enormous challenge for his heirs to retain such an empire.

Henry II refused to share power with his heirs, and was forced to do so gradually by a series of rebellions launched by his children. Image shows an early 14th century CE ancestry roll, depicting King Henry II of England and his legitimate children (left to right): William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, King Henry II was legendarily close-fisted with his heirs. Historians have viewed his refusal to distribute land and power to his offspring variously as evidence of a jealous personality, or a deliberate attempt to preserve the personal union of his the heterogeneous lands. Regardless, Henry’s heirs chafed – whilst Henry’s firstborn son was elevated to co-King (hence his name ‘Henry the Young King’), he received little direct power, and whilst Prince John’s elder brothers were promised the inheritances of parts of Henry’s empire upon the King’s death, John, as the last in line of any of Henry’s sons, was appointed nothing. From his early years, he was called ‘Lackland’ for his poor prospects of inheritance, a nickname apparently given to him cruelly by his own father the King. John would have been raised by a wet-nurse, rather than his mother Eleanor, as was customary amongst elite medieval families, and he was sent away to the abbey at Fontevraud to be raised and schooled by the monks.

The Heirs Revolt

Whilst John was still a toddler, Prince John’s elder brothers Henry, Geoffrey and Richard, who were all in their teenage years, launched a rebellion against Henry with the support of their mother Eleanor – it is unlikely that young John would have had much interaction with any of them during these crucial formative years. John, as the only one of the King’s sons who had not rebelled against him – due to his young age – was taken on the subsequent military campaign by his father. Though the King was victorious against the brief rebellion, Prince John’s elder brothers succeeded in compelling the King to cede them some real power: Richard was given the Duchy of Brittany, and Geoffrey was given Aquitaine. But even though they were formally reconciled, Henry would never view them with a fatherly eye ever again: John, despite his position far away from the line of the throne, became Henry’s favorite. Before the age of ten, he was given the Duchy of Cornwall, and he was betrothed to Isabella of Gloucester, the infant granddaughter of the Earl of Gloucester. Most importantly, his father gave John nominal control of his new conquests in Ireland, making him Lord of Ireland in 1177.

Henry the Young King’s rebellion against his father was strongly identified by contemporary chroniclers with the Biblical story of Absalom, the son of King David who left his father’s court in order to plot his overthrow – to the extent that he is often referred to by that name. ‘Absalom leaving the court of King David’, from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1240s CE. (via HenryTheYoungKing.Blogspot)

Though young Prince John was now the King’s favorite son after the revolt of 1173-4, by dint of his youth and pliability, their family dramas were far from over. Henry the Young King and Richard came to blows over the future of the crown of England in 1183, leading to the Young King’s death from dysentery on campaign. Grieving and forced to upend his plans for succession, King Henry assigned Richard to rule England after his death, shuffling John to Richard’s former Duchy of Brittany – but Richard refused: he wanted to rule both England and Brittany. Now that Prince John was old enough to engage in warfare on his own, he was sucked into the conflicts between his brothers: King Henry ordered John and Geoffrey to bring Richard to heel. The resulting bloody campaign was inconclusive, and Henry’s succession plans remained unresolved.

Lord of Ireland

John’s first real taste of independent rule came in 1185, when he first travelled to his holdings in Ireland. But it would set the tone for much of his subsequent rule: Ireland was a complex morass following King Henry II’s conquests, characterized by Anglo-Norman settler-mercenaries, seafaring Norse-Gaels, and indigenous Irish Celts – all with clashing political cultures and rival institutions. Prince John managed to alienate both: contemporaries relate how he foolishly mocked the beards of the Irish clan chieftains, unfashionable by Anglo-Norman standards, whilst simultaneously failing to impress the new settler elite. Contemporaries also remark on young John’s mercurial temperament: that he was capable of great wit and generosity, but would turn on a sixpence into rudeness and rage.

‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1854, represents the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland: in the center, the Norman lord Richard “Strongbow” de Clare marries the Irish princess Aoife MacMurrough – in the foreground are the slaughtered corpses of many Irish warriors. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The later 1180s upended John’s life yet again. Geoffrey, his eldest surviving brother, was competing in a tournament in Paris in 1186, when he was tragically trampled to death by a horse – leaving behind his wife and a son named Arthur. A chronicler relates that the grief-stricken King Philip Augustus of France attempted to climb into his coffin during Geoffrey’s funeral. But whether one can imagine John shedding many tears over his brother, his death brought Prince John closer to the English throne. Amidst the turmoil of King Henry’s unsettled succession plans, the King of France had been a natural source of succour for King Henry’s disaffected sons, and by 1189, Richard had finally had enough: Richard gave homage to King Philip, acknowledging him as his overlord, and the two launched a joint campaign – Richard to claim all of the Angevin lands for himself, and Philip to undermine his continental rival. John initially supported his father, but when it became clear that his ageing and ailing father could not hope to match the alliance between Richard and Philip Augustus, Prince John belatedly switched sides. Rapidly losing support, King Henry sued for peace, acknowledging Richard as his sole heir in all lands – and old King Henry died not long afterward.

The Absent Lion

But this victory for now-King Richard was not a total disaster for John. As part of his growing alliance with King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard and King Philip had agreed a sort of tontine: that they would both go on the Third Crusade to the Holy Land together, so that neither could make war in the other’s absence. This raised the prospect of Richard becoming an absentee King – a situation which could potentially benefit John enormously. But Richard was wary of his younger brother: whilst he generously endowed John with new lands in England and fulfilled his father’s betrothal of John to the young heiress of Gloucester (thereby making him Earl of Gloucester), he also intended to banish him from England for the period of four years, thus preventing him from making trouble whilst he was away in the Outremer. Only his mother Eleanor’s intervention persuaded Richard to relent. Having bought the loyalty of his nobles with a raft of land sales, new titles and bribes, Richard set sail for the Levant in the summer of 1190, having been in England only a handful of months. He left his infant nephew Arthur as nominal regent of England in the care of a regency council of three nobles. But this council notably excluded John, as did Richard’s naming of Geoffrey’s son Arthur as regent and heir. Whilst John was no longer ‘Lackland’, once again he found himself on the outside of real power, and he likely began plotting.

Richard the Lionheart (right) and King Philip II of France (left) despicted sealing their alliance to go on Crusade together, from a mid-14th century miniature. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Richard’s choice of regency councillors had been poor: one died almost as soon as Richard had left, and the remaining two could not work amicably together – William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely and Richard’s appointed justiciar in his absence, emerged as the most powerful. This was a godsend for John, who began declaring himself as Richard’s rightful heir, and began establishing a rival court, duplicating the royal offices and bureaucracy. Before long, the estranged regents deemed John an intolerable threat, but they were divided and offered little resistance to the upstart prince. After a series of brief skirmishes, John was welcomed into the City of London, to whom John had promised all manner of liberties in return for recognizing him as Richard’s heir, and besieged the regents who had taken refuge in the royal fortress of the Tower of London. However, John could not break such a powerful fortress quickly, and before he could starve the defenders out he was stymied by the arrival of the popular Bishop of Coutances, who had been sent by Richard to restore order in his absence. The Bishop defused the stand-off, in return for Longchamp resigning his post as justiciar and leaving England – but John could now no longer legitimately depose the infant Arthur. As well, news that Richard had married whilst on Crusade dealt a further blow to John’s prestige: this raised the specter of legitimate heirs who would rank above John’s claim to the throne.

A King’s Ransom

However, though King Philip II of France and many other Crusaders returned to Europe in late 1191, Richard was not amongst them. Rumours abounded in England, and John seized his opportunity. He courted King Philip to form an alliance, seeking that all of Richard’s continental holdings would pass to him. John and Richard jointly carved up Normandy, with the French King receiving many key fortresses and John retaining control of the rump. This alliance would be sealed by John setting aside his wife Isabella of Gloucester, in favour of marrying King Philip II’s sister Alys. Having already declared himself as Richard’s heir, Prince John now began stating baldly that King Richard was dead or lost – clearly setting the stage for a seizure of the throne itself. It is this period which inspired Disney’s portrayal of ‘Prince John’ in Robin Hood, with the cowardly lion declaring that King was lost, exercising power as a pseudo-monarch through a parallel royal court. But Richard was neither dead nor lost: owing to a series of intemperate political decisions which had alienated many of the Crusaders, Richard had been forced to make his way back from the Levant in disguise – but he had been discovered and captured by his enemies in Germany, eventually being handed over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in September of 1193.

King Richard the Lionheart was initially captured by Leopold of Austria, and imprisoned in Dürnstein Castle (pictured). He was later handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, another enemy of Angevin ambitions. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine began raising funds to meet the eye-watering ransom of 100,000 pounds of silver (more than twice the annual income of the Kingdom of England) – whilst John and King Philip of France began raising another sum to persuade Emperor Henry to hold him for longer! Ironically, it was this double-fundraising effort which forms the basis of the legend of King John’s tax-heavy regime, even though the taxation was at least partly levied by John’s opponents against his wishes. As well, Prince John’s regime was far from uncontested: when it became common knowledge that Richard was indeed alive and in captivity, many of Richard’s supporters refused to continue co-operation with John, and a brief civil war began, in which John was quickly militarily outclassed. Finally, Richard’s supporters delivered the money to Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who honoured his word and set Richard free. A contemporary chronicler records that Richard sent a simple message to his upstart brother upon his release: “Look to yourself; the devil is loose”.

A Reunion of Sorts

But rather than a cataclysmic clash between the two rival siblings, the conflict ended somewhat anticlimactically. When Richard returned to England, he found Prince John’s supporters already largely militarily defeated, and John immediately fled for Normandy without offering serious resistance. Eventually, King Richard met John in Normandy peacefully, and he did formally strip John of all of his lands save Ireland – but at the same time, he blamed John’s actions on wicked advisors, and he even went as far as to set aside young Arthur to name John as his successor. Perhaps Richard had finally determined that it was safer to keep the changeable Prince John ‘inside the tent’ – or perhaps he was more urgently concerned with pushing King Philip out of the castles in France which had been neglected (or cynically ceded by John) in his absence.

The vast Chateau Gaillard was constructed in Normandy by Richard the Lionheart to secure his border against King Philip II of France – it cost an enormous £15-20,000, and was mostly completed in only two years. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless, John and Richard quickly launched a joint attack upon King Philip, with the aim of reversing his hold in the Angevin territories. They were very successful, conducting a diplomatic alliance with France’s enemies in Germany and the Low Countries, and limiting their aims to the former Angevin possessions. John was clearly not militarily incompetent, as he captured the town of Gamaches, and even led a daring raid deep into French territory that resulted in the capture of the Bishop of Beauvais. In return, Richard formally cleansed John of their former enmity, and restored him to many of his former lands, including the Earldom of Gloucester.

History Turns on a Crossbow’s Quarrel

So, by spring of 1199, the situation had again rapidly transformed. Where John had previously continued the younger Angevins’ vice of flirting with the King of France in order to undermine their brothers, now John’s inconstancy had made Philip an implacable enemy. But he had secured himself as Richard’s heir: although he had been unable to militarily overcome Richard’s supporters, he had demonstrated that he could exercise power in trying times. Richard alone may perhaps have been an insufficient administrator, and John might have been given backbone and constancy by the courage of his brother – together, they stood a serious chance of reversing John’s unprincipled cessions to France, and preserving their father’s Angevin empire.

King John, depicted in a 14th century miniature engaging in the royal sport of stag hunting. (via Wikimedia Commons)

But this rosy dream of brotherly reconciliation would be ended by a crossbow quarrel, shot by a mere boy. During the campaign to push back King Philip II, Richard would besiege a tiny castle manned by a garrison of only a handful of men, and he would be struck in the shoulder by a chance shot – the wound would turn bad, and it would end his life before a fortnight was out. We can already see many of the character flaws that would marr the rest of Prince John’s reign as King: his flashes of anger and cruelty, his lack of courage in arms, and his cynical inconstancy. Though Richard had made his wishes for succession clear, Prince John would be left scrambling for the English throne against a new alliance between King Philip Augustus of France, and John’s twelve-year old nephew Arthur. Coming to the throne in this murky situation of enmeshed claims and swirling French, Norman and English ambitions, John had the support of one of the most important power-brokers in the Anglo-Norman world: his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But would that be enough?


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.