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King John, England and the Wider World in 1215

The majority of King John’s subjects lived out their lives close to their birthplaces. Ninety percent of the population of England lived in the countryside, residing in villages and working on small farms. For the King and his barons, however, the world outside England was becoming a more accessible place by 1215. John devoted more attention to relations with the Welsh, Scots and Irish than his immediate predecessors. English Pilgrims traveled to holy sites in Santiago de Compostela, Rome and the Holy Land seeking forgiveness for their sins, and merchants sought new goods and markets. The knights who had accompanied John’s elder brother King Richard the Lionhearted on the Third Crusade brought back knowledge of the Middle East. Beyond the three known continents of Europe, Northern Africa and Asia, less was known but educated people knew that the world was round and that it was theoretically possible to travel to Asia by sailing west.

There are clauses in the Magna Carta that reflect England’s growing engagement with the rest of the British Isles. By 1215, John had not only alienated his English barons but had acquired a treacherous reputation in his dealings with the rulers of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. John’s father, Henry II envisioned Ireland as a source of lands and wealth for his youngest son. Unfortunately, the Prince made a poor impression from the moment of his arrival in Waterford in 1185. According to Welsh clergyman, Gerald de Berri, “[John] treated the Irish of those parts, though they had been loyal to the English, with disdain and derision, pulling them about by their beards which in accord with native tradition they kept long and flowing.”

As King, John also alienated the Welsh and Scots. In 1206, the King recognized the growing power of Llewellyn “the Great” ap Iowerth, Lord of Snowdonia by marrying his illegitimate daughter Joan Plantagenet to the Welsh Prince. Relations between John and his son-in-law deteriorated as Llewellyn supported other Welsh princes and English barons who quarrelled with the King. John demanded that Llewellyn swear fealty to the King of England as his overlord, give up one of his sons as a hostage and accept English law. Llewellyn supported Magna Carta, and three clauses of the Charter concern respect for Welsh land rights, law and the return of “the son of Llewellyn and all the hostages from Wales.”

King Alexander II of Scotland was also a party to Magna Carta. In contrast to Ireland and Wales, lowland Scotland was united under a single King who also held lands in England as a baron. In 1209, John led an army to the banks of the Tweed, demanding that Alexander’s father, King William the Lion swear fealty, pay 15,000 silver marks for the King of England’s good will and send his two daughters to England as hostages. The elderly William accepted these terms but Alexander was determined to regain his independence when he became King in 1214. Like Llewellyn, Alexander supported the barons against John. The Magna Carta acknowledges this allegiance, stating, “We will treat Alexander, King of the Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and his liberties and rights in the same manner in which we will act towards our other barons of England…” Alexander married John’s legitimate daughter, also named Joan, in 1221.

Beyond the British Isles, John had personal connections to other European royal houses. At a time when treaties between kingdoms were solidified through dynastic marriages, Henry II had forged links with his fellow monarchs by arranging strategic marriages for John’s three elder sisters. In 1168 Matilda married the powerful German prince, Henry III, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, Eleanor married King Alfonso VIII of Castile (now part of Spain) in 1177 and Joan married King William II of Sicily that same year. The marriage of Eleanor’s daughter, Blanche of Castile to the future Louis VIII of France gave the heir to the French throne a claim to England that he would assert after John’s repudiated Magna Carta.

The loss of John’s continental possessions to France shifted the balance of power in Europe. During Henry II’s reign, the King of England had wielded great influence in what is now France due to his possession of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. The acquisition of these territories by Philip II made France a dominant power in Western Europe. In contrast to England, which became a centralized kingdom prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, most European monarchs controlled a loose federation of territories acquired through inheritance, war, fealty and marriage.


The most powerful figure in Europe during King John’s reign was Pope Innocent III. All monarchs belonging to the Roman Catholic Church were technically subordinate to the Pope and Innocent III did not hesitate to excommunicate disobedient rulers and place their lands under interdict. John quarrelled with the Pope over the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, which resulted in his excommunication and England being placed under Interdict from 1208 to 1213. The interdict prevented John’s subjects from receiving Christian rites until the King came to terms with the Pope, agreeing to pay tribute to Innocent as his feudal lord.

In addition to his asserting his temporal power, Innocent also introduced religious reforms during John’s reign. In 1215, the same year as the issuance of Magna Carta, Innocent III presided over the Fourth Lateran council, which called for a variety of religious and social reforms including the establishment of free schools for the laity, the posting of banns before marriage, confession for the faithful at least once per year and the enforcement of clerical celibacy.

In contrast to his elder brother Richard, John never went on Crusade but he made a financial contribution to what is now known as the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204. Unlike Richard, the Crusaders of John’s reign ran out of funds before they reached the Holy Land and began looting territories belonging to their fellow Christians. In 1204, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople (now Istanbul), and claimed the rich lands of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Although Innocent III condemned this attack on a Christian kingdom, he hoped that western control of the Byzantine Empire might reunite the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which had split in the eleventh century. This religious reunification never took place and Byzantium regained control of its empire by 1261.

To the east of the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol leader Temujin was increasing his territory at the same time that John was losing his French possessions. Temujin united the Mongol tribes by 1206, receiving the title of Genghis Khan. The Mongol Empire first expanded southward and Genghis Khan’s forces sacked Zhongdu (now Beijing) – the same year John sealed the Magna Carta – gaining control of northern China. As the Mongols expanded westward in the reign of John’s son Henry III, Europeans viewed them as potential allies in future Crusades against the Islamic Caliphates of the Middle East. Genghis Khan’s successors, however, responded to all correspondence from the Papacy inviting them to convert to Christianity with demands for tribute and submission. The Mongols ultimately invaded Europe conquering territories that now comprise parts of Russia and the Ukraine.

The Magna Carta states, “All merchants are to be safe and secure in leaving and entering England by both land and water”, but King John and his barons did not know what lands and peoples existed across the waters to the west. More than one hundred years before John’s reign, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen learned of Viking discoveries to the west from Christian missionaries who had traveled to Scandinavia. Adam wrote that in Vinland (modern Newfoundland) “vines producing excellent wine grow wild but beyond that island no habitable land is found in the ocean, every place beyond it is full of impenetrable ice and intense darkness.” Without knowledge of the existence of the North and South American continents, it seemed impossible for ships to carry enough supplies for a westward sailing from Europe to Asia.

The world south of the equator was equally shrouded in mystery for King John and his barons. The English scholar Alexander of Neckam, whose mother Hodierna had nursed the future King Richard, speculated in his book The Nature of Things, that there might be Antipodeans living “beneath our feet.” Alexander was pessimistic about Europeans ever contacting these people because Aristotle believed that ships could not sail across the equator because of the intense heat.

In 1215, King John and his barons had a greater knowledge of the lands beyond England’s borders than any British ruling elite since Roman times. Beyond Europe and the Mediterranean world however, there was little precise knowledge of the wider world. Contact between Europe and the powerful Mongol Empire was not established until the reign of Henry III, and England would not sponsor a trans-Atlantic voyage until Henry VII financed John Cabot’s first voyage in 1497. For King John and his barons, the known world was gradually expanding at the time of Magna Carta but the Age of Exploration was still centuries in the future.

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  1. Pingback: King John, England and the Wider World in 1215 | Carolyn Harris: Royal Historian

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