A Brief History
On October 12, 1216, King John of England lost his crown jewels!
England has had only one king named John for a good reason: their only king who had that name was quite possibly the country’s worst monarch in its entire over 1000-year-long history!
John “Lackland” or “Softsword” (December 24, 1166 – October 19, 1216) reigned as England’s king from April 6, 1199 until his death on October 19, 1216. He succeeded the famed crusader-king Richard the Lionhearted on England’s throne and experienced one debacle after another. Even before John’s reign officially began, he tried and failed to usurp his brother’s throne, while Richard was absent from England. Then, while ruler, John suffered a major military defeat in France, which cost him Normandy, a land previously ruled by English monarchs since William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England in 1066.
The worst and most embarrassing of John’s disasters came in the final years of his reign. In July 1214, despite being allied with the Holy Roman Emperor and other powerful rulers, John and his allies suffered a decisive defeat by the French at the battle of Bouvines. John’s discontented barons back home subsequently forced him to sign the Magna Carta the next year. This document was the first ever forced upon an English king by any of his subjects. The king, however, did not want to abide by this “great charter” and ended up fighting a bloody war against his barons known as the First Barons’ War. The situation grew so perilous that Louis of France, son of the victor at Bouvines, was actually invited by the English barons to intervene. Facing a French invasion and major uprising, John’s situation continued to deteriorate.
In one of his greatest humiliations, his baggage train, including possibly some horses, but definitely including his personal belongings and even the crown jewels, were lost in a tidal estuary, sucked under by quicksand and whirlpools. By this point, John had contracted dysentery and succumbed to his illnesses but days after losing the crown jewels.
Question for students (and subscribers): What was John’s most important failure as a king? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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John went on to become a major villain in popular culture and a recurring antagonist of Robin Hood in numerous films and works of literature. For a fun and brutal cinematic depiction of John’s reign, we recommend watching the following films in this order: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), which offers a humorous take on John’s actions while Richard was fighting the Third Crusade, Robin Hood (2010), which focuses on the period around the French invasion of England following John’s ascension to the throne, and Ironclad (2011), which depicts John’s siege of Rochester Castle in 1215 and concludes with John’s death the next year. No, these films are not entirely accurate, but they give you a sense of how John has been perceived and how so much of his life, not just losing the crown jewels, has been ridiculed and disdained. For a scholarly book offering various viewpoints on his reign, which can be previewed online, please see King John: New Interpretations.
The featured image in this article, an engraving by Edmund Evans (1826–1905) of King John signing the Magna Carta, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.