John was the younger brother of Richard I, who named him as his heir before he died childless. His soubriquet ‘Lackland’ (French sans terre) was given because he was a young son of Henry II with little personal wealth, and because the Angevin house lost territory to the kings of France during his reign.
John had taken part in the internecine strife of his father’s later reign, but being the youngest son he was overlooked for any major title; he gained a reputation for fickleness, wiliness and treachery – all qualities which would have stood him in good stead in the aftermath of his father’s reign. During Richard’s absence on the Third Crusade (1190-4) John moved against his appointed agent, William Longchamp, bishop of Ely, and seized control of the English state. When Richard was imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria, John is believed to have offered the Pope a sum of money to keep him confined but this was declined and Richard was freed. While he might have expected harsh justice from his fierce brother, John was pardoned and made heir presumptive. John had to see off the claims of Prince Arthur of Brittany to secure the throne of England; Arthur was regarded as the puppet of King Phillip II of France.
Wars with the French and the Welsh occupied much of John’s attention, during which time the English-based aristocracy grew in importance to the crown. In 1215 the king famously sealed the ‘Great Charter’ (magna carta) which curtailed the absolute power of the monarchy in response to the demands of his more powerful supporters. Rebellions by pro-French barons entailed military action against their strongholds, such as Rochester Castle (Kent), and an abortive invasion by Prince Louis of France. On one of his campaigns in the east Midlands in 1216, the royal baggage train was lost in the Wash. John appears to have taken this as a bad omen and died soon after. Although later characterized as weak, treacherous and devious, John took an active role in the establishment of court records which formed the basis for later legal judgements.