The Crisis of John's reign


John and the Church

bullet When Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205, the monks secretly elected one of their own number as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their election, and appointed John's favorite - John de Gray (ob. 1214) in his place.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate. Instead, he arranged in 1207 the election of his own friend Stephen Langton (1150-1228)

Innocent III


bullet John was furious at this attempt to undermine his control of the English church. He expelled the monks of Canterbury who had conspired with Innocent III, and refused to allow Langton in the kingdom.
Pope Innocent responded by placing England under Interdict (1208). The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites); the dead were denied Christian burial.

bullet John used fines and imprisonment to try and bully the clergy into ignoring the Interdict. Innocent III in turn retaliated by excommunicating John (i.e. depriving him of all his rights as a Christian).
bullet Finally, in 1212, Innocent deposed John and absolved his subjects of their allegiance to him.

John's administration

bulletJohn continued the process of improving bureaucracy and tax collection that had begun under Henry II. Richard I's servant Hubert Walter directed these efforts from 1199 to 1205.


Penny of King John

Some aspects of John's administration benefited everyone; in particular the recoinage of 1205 which stabilized the currency and encouraged trade and urban development.


bulletThe barons were far less pleased by the increasingly efficient supervision of their lands and income. The loss of Normandy meant that John was always at hand to supervise and reinforce this oversight.
bulletThe loss of Normandy also concentrated John's attention on outlying parts of Britain.
bulletIn 1209, John heard rumors that William of Scotland was assisting a conspiracy of some northern lords against him. He marched with his army to the Scottish border and demanded William's submission. William (already sixty-six years old, but whose heir, Alexander was aged only eleven) did not dare refuse and agreed to pay John 15,000 marks and surrender two of daughters as hostages.
(Alexander II succeeded in 1214, and took advantage of John's problems to assert claims to England's northern counties).
bulletIn 1210, John also asserted royal control over the Norman barons in Ireland - in particular, William de Braose and Hugh de Lacy. In theory, John brought obtained the submission of the Irish "kings" and brought them within the feudal system. In practice, he merely stopped the complete conquest of Ireland by Anglo-Norman barons. The North and West of Ireland reverted to virtual independence, and English control in the South was only partial.

Dyganwy (Deganwy) Castle

bullet In 1211, John attempted to suppress the rebellious Llywelyn ap Iorworth the most important prince of Northern Wales. He marched on the stronghold of Dyganwy Castle, but Llwelyn and his followers simply destroyed the castle, withdrew to the mountains and left John's forces to starve. John withdrew, resupplied, returned and destroyed everything in his path until Llwelyn sued for peace.
bulletJohn had achieved a number of military victories, but he had also made many enemies amongst his own nobles.

John's character


King John was suspicious by nature, and his desire for security and secrecy apparently verged on paranoia. He trusted his foreign servants far more than his barons, and they resented this attitude.


bulletHe was also vindictive to his enemies. The rumor that John wanted his nephew, Arthur blinded and castrated is probably false, but another report that John personally killed Arthur while in a drunken rage may well be true. There is no doubt that Matilda, wife of William de Briouze (Braose) after blaming John for the murder, was imprisoned and starved to death along with her son.
bulletJohn also acquired a reputation for lust. He fathered five bastards and - more dangerously - alienated at least one important lord (Eustace de Vesci) by pursuing his wife.

" [John] had almost as many enemies as barons"

(Roger of Wendover, Flores historiarum)


bullet John was also disliked for extravagant expenditure and greedy exactions. These faults made the high level of taxation still less acceptable.

War and Taxation

bulletJohn continued to pursue war against Philip for seizing Normandy. He allied with Otto of Brunswick, who became Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV, in 1209. Like John, Otto was excommunicated by Innocent III (1210); and like John, he feared Philip of France. Innocent III had not simply deposed King John, he had commissioned Philip of France to invade and oust John from his throne. John finally (13 May, 1213) capitulated to the pope, and agreed to be a vassal of the Pope, acknowledging him as overlord of England. In 1214 the pope at last lifted the Interdict.
bulletJohn's barons refused to support John's attempts to campaign against Philip in Poitou.
King John tried to divide Philip's forces, so that Otto and his Flemish allies could attack Paris.

However, Philip forced battle at Bouvines (near Lille and Tournay). The skilled and heavily-mailed French knights overcame the rival knights in a confused encounter and then slaughtered the outflanked infantry (27 July 1214).

Otto IV fled the field and soon lost power (deposed 1215). John's chances of regaining Normandy were ended.



bullet John's campaign was not only a failure, it was an expensive one. To try and recoup his costs, he issued in 1215 a demand for "scutage" from all the barons who had failed to join his expedition, at the rate of three marks (forty shillings) per shield.
[Scutage was the compensation payable by tenants who failed to provide knights to serve the king as rent for their feudal fief. The traditonal rate was one mark (thirteen shilling and four pence) per shield, and even King Richard had never demanded more than twenty shillings per knight].
bullet Not only did King John demand high scutages and fine rigorously any failure to pay, he had already levied high taxes on land and movables (1203 and 1207).
bullet John needed to increase taxes if he were to be able to pay the mercenary soldiers whose wages were rising in an age of inflation, but the barons perceived John's exactions as excessive. In 1214 while John was abroad, many Northern barons simply refused to pay.
bullet In 1215, the barons appealed to Pope Innocent III (now "lord of England") against John's exactions and for their traditional liberties. However, now that Innocent had John in his pocket, he simply ordered the barons to obey the king.
bullet Ignoring the Pope, the barons -  led by Eustace de Vesci and Robert Fitz Walter - assembled under arms at Stamford in Spring 1215 and then marched south, renouncing all allegiance to John.


Roger Bigod's castle of Framlingham,
captured by John in 1216

bullet John (probably to buy time) agreed to consider the barons' demands, and Archbishop Stephen Langton took charge of brokering a compromise. On 15 June 1215 at Runnymede, King John signed Magna Carta.
bullet Neither John nor the rebellious barons trusted one another to keep the peace. John sought help from the pope (who promptly invalidated Magna Carta and excommunicated the barons) and continued fortifying castles in preparation for war. During the Winter and Spring of 1215 to 1216, John defeated his enemies in their Northern strongholds.
bullet The barons obtained assistance from Philip of France, who sent his son, Louis, with an army. This reached London in Spring 1216.
bullet John was on his way south to attack the rebels, when he contracted dysentery and died, 18 October 1216.


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