It is said that King John was born on Christmas Eve, 1166 or 1167 in Oxford. A king with a bad reputation. Nearly everyone has an opinion about him as he is forever connected to the need to curb his will and cruel power with Magna Carta. And of course we know him from TV series and films about Robin Hood, the Sherriff of Nottingham and his brother King Richard. Richard the Lionheart. Although, in fact in reality he was never part of the Robin Hood legends, it was the book Ivanhoe that gave that its big boost.
His birth was hardly noted by the chroniclers of the time, the last child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the youngest of five. And no provision was made for him in any succession planning by his father. His nickname was Lackland or Sansterre.
Because Eleanor was now past child bearing age Henry decided she could return to Aquitaine and govern it for him from Poiters. And this new baby son could go to Fontevraud and be looked after by the nuns. His older sister Joan was already there. So the cloisters had a couple of royal toddlers, far away from the strife and wars that had begun between Henry and his young adult sons. But Henry II made this situation worse in 1173 by impulsively promising grants of land in Anjou to John, which upset his brothers who wanted everything for themselves. And now Eleanor and her sons turned on Henry. And one result was for Henry to take John from Fontevraud and bring him to the royal court. And of course, capturing and imprisoning Eleanor. Nothing ended well; John turned against his father too and deserted him as he lay dying. Hearing this news was a mortal blow for Henry. And the son who inherited the throne was Richard, Eleanor’s favourite son, as John had been his father’s.
Jumping forward from this time, to 1199, we find Richard the 1st strolling around the castle at Chalus, near Limoges. An insignificant castle but the Count of Limoges was proving rebellious. And so was his half-brother, the Count of Angoulême. These two leading vassals needed a lesson. But Richard was hit by a solitary crossbowman who managed to strike Richard in the shoulder, the wound became gangrenous and ten days later Richard was dead.
John now inherited the kingdom, the sprawling kingdom that stretched from the borders with Scotland to the Pyrenees. He had opposition from the posthumous son of an older brother, Geoffroy, Duke of Brittany, Prince Arthur. This prince had help from the King of France who wanted the Anglo-Angevins out of France, and he also had help from the Lusignans because of the huge insult John had made against them.
Now King John’s story becomes tangled with Isabella of Angouleme, for in 1200 he met her at Lusignan, where she was waiting to be married to Hugh Lusignan. He arranged or plotted for her to be taken to her father’s chateau in Angoulême and made sure that he married her in August 1200.
In 1216 I was at the Historical Novelists Conference in Oxford and had time to explore a little. At the back of Worcester College on a rather busy junction, I found half hidden in an ivy covered wall a plaque. I had no idea that I was going to find it or that I was so close to John’s birthplace. Isabella of Angoulême had been published in 2015 and I was busy writing the next two books about her life. It was a serendipitous moment.
And another coincidence or not? John had contracted dysentery at Lynn in 1216, after his disastrous crossing of the Wash. Just before his death, he managed to dictate a brief will. As part of that John requested: ‘I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester.’ King John was buried in the cathedral at Worcester. The will still survives and is usually on display in the cathedral library.
In other news I have been writing for Helen Hollick, a short story for her sequence of daily stories. These are stories inspired by a song. A great idea and some wonderful stories to be read.
This link will take you to the first story of December 2nd.
My story is on December 10th and is not medieval at all!