Typically, during this era, the eldest son would inherit all his father’s property, lands, and responsibilities. Norman Kings, like Henry II, usually divided up lands and titles among all their sons. It was assumed the brothers would work together, or help each other out while governing an Empire. This usually was never the case. Almost always, brothers fought for control of their brother’s lands. Since Henry and Eleanor had several sons, when John was born, they ran out of lands to grant him. He became comically referred to as “John Lackland.” Even though Henry and Eleanor’s lands were vast, they could only be stretched so far. Instead of going to a noble family like his brothers, and given lands and titles, John was sent to an the famous Abbey at Fontevrault. It was expected that John enter the Church.
This changed however, when Eleanor encouraged her older sons to rebel against their father, causing the King much grief. John was recalled to his father’s court and became his favorite son, as he was much too young to be involved in such intrigues. This worked out, because Henry began to give stripped lands and titles to John. He even made him Lord of Ireland, after the Norman invasion of Ireland. Henry II then disinherited Isabelle of Gloucester’s (another Isabelle) sisters, making her Countess of Gloucester and forced her to marry John, (Isabelle was about 16 and John 20.) They were forbidden to consummate the marriage by direct order of the Pope, as they shared a great grandfather. Henry II just wanted to give her lands and wealth to John. Eventually this marriage was annulled.
When John went to Ireland to rule the Norman territories, it was not a success. There were tensions between the local Irish, and the Norman and Welsh settlers. John also offended the Irish, instead of trying to embrace and respect their culture and differences, a mistake many lords make. John returned to England happily, but in failure. Henry II suffered one more rebellion, by his eldest living son at the time, Richard the Lionheart. This time John joined with his brother. Henry II died shortly after, some say mostly of a broken heart that his favorite son betrayed him in the end, like all the others.
As soon as Richard became King he wanted to leave on the third crusade. As a military man, he was itching for some action. The English people got used to John, as at least he was there. This was a mistake on Richard’s part, as the crusades and all the drama that unfolded overseas kept him away a long time. Richard was even captured and held for ransom by the Germans. Meanwhile in England, John assumed Richard was dead and began making plans to take the crown. John formed an alliance with the French King, Philip II, England’s longest and most hated enemy. When Richard returned, the rebellion was squashed and John ran for his life. Richard forgave his baby brother, but only after taking all his lands and titles, except the one he could care less for, Lord of Ireland.
When Richard died, John did not succeed to the throne with ease. Another brother, Geoffrey, had a son before he died. Geoffrey would have been king after Richard, and then John after Geoffrey, if he died having no heirs. People were confused if Geoffrey’s son should be King or John. The Norman’s favored John, and the Angevin’s favored Arthur, his nephew. This caused war between the Normans and Franks, (again), for they always looked for any excuse to fight. Eventually John won, and made a truce with the Frankish King.
It was around this time that John formally annulled his marriage to Isabelle of Gloucester. He had met and fallen in love with Isabella, Countess of Angoulême, who was young and beautiful. Also, her lands were much desired too. Of course people so important never married for love alone. As there was no dispensation for John to marry Isabelle, his cousin, he was given an annulment. Isabella’s lands gave John a more direct access to his domains in Aquitaine. Isabella, however was betrothed to a Lusignan, powerful Aquitainian Barons, with powerful armies. They also wanted control of Isabella’s territories. John could have offered some compensation or negotiated, but his pride as their overlord, caused him to become their enemy. Not a smart move. Even his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tried her best to appease her Barons. As it was the Barons of Aquitaine and their vast armies that made Aquitaine what it was, one of Europe’s most powerful Duchies.
War broke out, and the Lusignan’s gained Normandy in the process. They also took Poitou. Eleanor was in Aquitaine trying to hold on. John came to her aid and they kept Aquitaine. However, John lost the support of his allies in Anjou and Brittany, when 23 noble prisoners died from neglect, something that was considered dishonorable on John’s part. He lost respect and gained even more enemies who turned to support Arthur, his nephew. John made another move and had his nephew killed to get rid of his claim once and for all. (I am surprised he held out as long as he did, for we have seen some King’s execute rivals immediately after ascending the throne.)
When John’s mother, Eleanor died after living and exceedingly long life for those times, (she was 82), he was in great danger. All his territories within the French Kingdom were as good as lost. Eleanor was the one they were loyal too, not her son. Perhaps they were equally loyal to Richard at one time too, however they hated John. Philip II of France took Anjou, Poitou, and Normandy with ease, especially with the Barons on his side.
About Isabella, what we know is that John married her and they had five children. When he was married to his first wife, had had five children with various mistresses, none with his first wife. He appears to have had no more illegitimate children after he married Isabella. As a man, John was said to be a frivolous man. He spent tons of money on clothes, jewels, and parties for himself. It is however, unfounded that John was atheist as it is rumored. His court seems to have observed all religious obligations and holidays. This can be chopped up to slander from historical enemies.
John’s reign is most noted for the signing of the Magna Carta, the Great Charter (even though he had no intention of following it). An important document that promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation only with baronial consent and limitations on scutage and other feudal payments. It was an attempt to limit the King’s powers by law and protect the Barons rights and privileges. It was an early basis for Constitutional Law. It’s ideals and principles carried over into the colonization of America.
John ended his days always at war with his Barons. He died of illness while on one of his numerous campaigns. His son Henry III, succeeded him to the throne.