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John

Reign

Early Conflicts

On Richard's death, John ascended the English throne to the exclusion of his nephew, Arthur I of Brittany. The supporters of Arthur, aided by King Philip, began a formidable revolt in France. At this time John alienated public opinion in England by divorcing his first wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and made enemies in France by marrying Isabel of Angoulême, who had been betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. In 1202, Arthur was defeated and captured, and it is thought that John murdered him in 1203. Philip continued the war and gradually gained ground until by 1206 he was in control of Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, Maine, and Touraine. John had lost all his French dominions except Aquitaine and a part of Poitou, which was a critical factor in his subsequent unpopularity.

The death (1205) of John's chancellor, Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, not only removed a moderating influence on the king but precipitated a crisis with the English church. John refused (1206) to accept the election of Stephen Langton as Walter's successor at Canterbury, and as a result Pope Innocent III placed (1208) England under interdict and excommunicated (1209) the king. The quarrel continued until 1213 when John, threatened by the danger of a French invasion and by increasing disaffection among the English barons, surrendered his kingdom to the pope and received it back as a papal fief.

The Magna Carta

John's submission to the pope improved his situation. Now backed by the pope, he formed an expedition to wage war on Philip in Poitou. However, while John was at La Rochelle, his allies, Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV (his nephew) and the count of Flanders, were decisively beaten by Philip at Bouvines in 1214. John had resorted to all means to secure men and money for his Poitou campaign, and after returning home he attempted to collect scutage from the barons who had refused to aid him on the expedition.

Abuses of feudal customs and extortion of money from the barons and the towns, not only by John but by Henry II and Richard I, had aroused intense opposition, which increased in John's unfortunate reign. The barons now rose in overwhelming force against the king, and John in capitulation set his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June, 1215. Thus, the most famous document of English constitutional history was the fruit of predominantly baronial force.

John, supported by the pope, gathered forces and renewed the struggle with the barons, who sought the aid of Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII). In the midst of this campaign John died, and his son, Henry III, was left to carry on the royal cause.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History: Biographies


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