The Plot | King John

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Shakespeare's King John is a rarely performed history play which tells the story of John's turbulent reign from 1199 to 1216.

Becoming King

King Richard I, the revered 'Lionheart', is dead. The play begins after the coronation of his youngest brother John.

The French argue that the English throne rightfully belongs to Arthur, the young son of John’s deceased older brother, Geoffrey Plantagenet.

War is declared between England and France.

The illegitimate son

During the preparations for war, an inheritance dispute is brought before King John by the Faulconbridge family. Queen Elinor (John’s mother) immediately recognises the eldest Faulconbridge brother (the 'Bastard') as the illegitimate child of her favourite son, Richard the Lionheart.

The Bastard is welcomed to Court as a Plantagenet and joins them in their military expedition to France.

French and English forces arrive outside the strategic town of Angiers in France. The citizens of Angiers deny both forces entry until it becomes clear who is the rightful King of England.

Both sides fight to prove themselves the rightful King, but both are equally matched. No clear winner is determined.

A fragile peace

Hubert, an aide to King John, suggests that the French and English could be united if they were to agree a marriage between Lewis the Dauphin, heir to France, and John's niece, Lady Blanche. Both sides approve and a hasty peace is negotiated. 

Arthur's mother, Lady Constance, is furious that the French have given up on her son's claim to the English throne.

At the wedding celebrations John is visited by Cardinal Pandulph and excommunicated from the Catholic Church for failing to agree to Rome's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. Cardinal Pandulph provokes the French into resuming war against the English, much to the delight of Constance.

Back to war

During the ensuing battle the English capture Arthur, and King John commands Hubert to execute the boy. Hubert cannot, and unbeknown to John, he lets Arthur live.

Believing Arthur dead and suspecting foul play, King John’s noblemen leave him and rumours of chaos spread across the land. King John learns that his mother, Queen Elinor, has died in France, and consequently his territories there are under threat.

Hubert admits to King John that Arthur is in fact alive, but this news comes too late as the young boy falls to his death from the battlements of the castle.

Upon finding Arthur’s body, King John's noblemen defect to follow Lewis the Dauphin and fight against their fellow Englishmen on English soil.

King John seeks Cardinal Pandulph's help to stop the advancing French forces, and in exchange agrees to obey the Pope’s wishes and submit the crown’s authority to Rome. On hearing of this agreement, the Bastard is furious, and encourages John to fight to defend his own land, without submission to a foreign power. 

Despite Pandulph’s attempts to broker peace, Lewis the Dauphin refuses to back down from the war. The Bastard is delighted and leads John’s forces into battle.

The death of a king

John falls ill on the battlefield and is taken to Swinstead Abbey. The lords learn they are betrayed by the French and return to John’s side. The Bastard wins the day on the field providing an initial victory for the English, but they lose half their forces in the Lincoln tides and are facing defeat as the Bastard escapes to Swinstead.

King John dies, leaving his men to face the approaching French forces alone. The war rages on.