John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and arguably the least impressive. Nicknamed sanz Terre, or Lackland, by his doting father was never thought to inherit significant portions of land. Henry named him the Lord of Ireland, but Ireland was half conquered at best. After his brothers’ rebelled, John cemented his place in his father’s affection, but broke his heart when he joined in the rebellion. His brothers died in turn with only Geoffrey leaving children. Young Arthur arguably had the better claim and was supported by the French King Philip Augustus, but John seized the treasury and the crown followed. John Lackland was crowned the King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and the head of the Angevin Empire in 1199. It was the beginning of the end.
John was not safe on his throne. Geoffrey’s son Arthur, Count of Brittany, was not about take the loss of the crown lying down and went into rebellion. John was able to get Philip Augustus to recognize his claim only after paying off to the tune of 20,000 marks and territorial concessions at the treaty of le Goulet in 1200. This earned him the new nickname of Softsword. If he had laid low, he could have made the situation work. However, John aggravated the situation with his roving eye for the ladies. His marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was declared invalid, and John was on the lookout for a wife. His heart was stolen by another Isabella, the twelve year old daughter of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angoulême and Alice of Courtenay and granddaughter of King Louis VI of France. Isabella of Angoulême was said to be a great beauty, but was already betrothed to Hugh le Brun, count of Lusignan. John did not care and stole the lovely Isabella right from under Hugh’s nose. Isabella, not being a fool and with her eyes on the crown, was probably a willing accomplice.
This happened probably more than we know, but it was standard practice for the aggrieved party, such as Isabella’s jilted fiance, to be compensated. John eschewed this nicety either through arrogance or just ignorance. To make matters worse, he confiscated part of de Lusignan’s territory and gave it to his new father-in-law. Hugh appealed to his overlord, King Philip Augustus, who must have been rubbing his hands with glee at the opportunity. John was summoned to France to answer to the charges, which he patently ignored, probably with a few choice words in private knowing the famous Plantagenet temper. This played directly into Philip Augustus’ hands.
Invoking feudal law, as John’s technical overlord for his lands on the Continent declared his lands forfeited and France, de Lusignan and Arthur invaded Normandy. Castle after castle fell. They besieged Arthur’s own grandmother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, at the castle of Mirabeau. John rushed to his mother’s aid and captured his troublesome nephew. Arthur was imprisoned in the dungeons of Rouen. By 1203, rumors of Arthur’s death began circulating. Some say that he was castrated and blinded and died of his wounds. Other tales said that John killed his nephew in a drunken rage after attempting to make peace. Whatever the truth, Arthur was never seen again and his sister Eleanor, the fair maid of Brittany, never saw the outside of the thick walls of Bristol Castle.
With the accusation John killed his nephew added with John’s high handed treatment of them, Norman vassals deserted in droves to Philip Augustus. After his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, all the lords of her domain rushed to give homage to Philip Augustus. The once great tracts of land on the continent were reduced to Gascony, saved only by the Archbishop of Bordeaux.
John built a war chest and employed many schemes to gain back his continental lands, but they came to naught. He was rather busy at the end of his reign with the Baronial wars and a little thing called Magna Carta.
Sadly, the marriage he paid a high price for was tempestuous at best. Although John and Isabella had several children, the both took various lovers. Matthew Paris describes the Queen as “more Jezebel than Isabel”. After John’s death, she married the son of her jilted fiance Hugh de Lusignan and they had several children, who influenced politics at the court of their half brother Henry III.
In the end, the great Angevin Empire was traded for the favors of a pretty young girl and a man who could not resist them.