Today King John is synonymous with the signing of Magna Carta, chasing the outlaw Robin Hood, and being an especially cowardly lion in the animated 1973 Disney film. But who was King John?

We look at the King John the man, the document that is forever linked with his name, and why in The Life and Death of King John Shakespeare doesn't even mention Magna Carta.


Prince John in the 1973 animated Disney film, Robin Hood via GIPHY

Who was King John?

John Plantagenet was the youngest of Henry II’s five legitimate sons, and was never expected to inherit land, earning him the nickname Jack Lackland. However, following the failed rebellion of his elder brothers against the crown, John soon became Henry’s favourite child, and was appointed Lord of Ireland and given lands in England. John’s elder brothers William, Henry and Geoffrey all died young, and by the time his remaining brother Richard (also known as Richard the Lionheart) became king in 1189, John was a potential heir to the throne. On his deathbed in 1199, Richard named John his successor, and he was crowned king.  

But the English Barons has another contender in mind – John’s nephew, the young Arthur of Brittany. In attempting to take Anjou and Maine in France, Arthur besieged his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Facing rebellion, John launched a counterattack, and succeeded in capturing all the rebels and their leaders, amongst them the young Arthur. By late 1203, rumours had spread that John had ordered the murder of his nephew and had cast the body into the River Seine.

Within five years of becoming king, John had lost much of his family’s lands in France, resulting in the collapse of the Angevin Empire and the growing power of the French dynasty. His reign was marked by a string of unsuccessful military campaigns, losing much of the money his Barons had put into the campaigns.

John’s allegiances with Europe were further tested when arguments arose with Pope Innocent III over the next Archbishop of Canterbury. John refused to accept the Pope’s choice Stephen Langton, instead banishing him from England. This led to John’s excommunication in 1209 (though he was eventually pardoned).

What Magna Carta?

By the year 1215, England was in political turmoil. King John was an unpopular king, and had faced opposition from within his own family, the English barons and Europe.

John’s government had become increasingly ruthless and brutal; with taxes soaring, John began to exploit his feudal rights ever more harshly. Discontentment amongst the English Barons increased once more, and when negotiations between John and his Barons failed, civil war loomed, and the rebels seized London.

Forced to negotiate, on 15 June 1215 at a site in Runnymede King John signed Magna Carta, a document that placed limitations on the king’s powers, ensured feudal rights and restated English law.

It didn’t last. After first agreeing to the terms of Magna Carta, John reneged, asking the Pope to declare it invalid. On doing so, the betrayal ignited a civil conflict between the English Barons and the monarchy, dubbed the First Barons’ War, that lasted for two years, past John’s death and into the reign of his son, Henry III.

Pippa Nixon as The Bastard and Alex Waldmann as King John in our 2012 production directed by Maria Aberg.
Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC Browse and license our images

Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John

In Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John, however, the playwright fails to mention Magna Carta completely, and instead focuses on the series of alliances and betrayals between England and several European Catholic states, including the papacy.

Ever hinting at Elizabethan England in his plays, in The Life and Death of King John Shakespeare arguably makes connections between the threats made to King John, and those made to Queen Elizabeth I. Both sovereigns were excommunicated by the Pope, with promises made to canonise those who plotted to kill them.

Shakespeare comes very close to alluding to contemporary issues in his plays, but to include Magna Carta in The Life and Death of King John is perhaps one allusion too far in an era of strict censorship. In Elizabethan England, the sovereign’s divine right to rule was absolute. With the threat of civil war constant, it was not permissible to portray a monarch outdone by his subjects, especially on the stage.