13. John, Lackland, A.D. 1199—1216
As a kind of joke, John, King Henry's youngest son, had been called Lackland, because he had nothing when his brothers each had some great dukedom. The name suited him only too well before the end of his life. The English made him king at once. They always did take a grown-up man for their king, if the last king's son was but a child. Richard had never had any children, but his brother Geoffrey, who was older than John, had left a son named Arthur, who was about twelve years old, and who was rightly the Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. King Philip, who was always glad to vex whoever was king of England, took Arthur under his protection, and promised to get Normandy out of John's hands. However, John had a meeting with him and persuaded him to desert Arthur, and marry his son Louis to John's own niece, Blanche, who had a chance of being queen of part of Spain. Still Arthur lived at the French King's court, and when he was sixteen years old, Philip helped him to raise an army and go to try his fortune against his uncle. He laid siege to Mirabeau, a town where his grandmother, Queen Eleanor, was living. John, who was then in Normandy, hurried to her rescue, beat Arthur's army, made him prisoner and carried him off, first to Rouen, and then to the strong castle of Falaise. Nobody quite knows what was done to him there. The governor, Hubert de Burgh, once found him fighting hard, though with no weapon but a stool, to defend himself from some ruffians who had been sent to put out his eyes. Hubert saved him from these men, but shortly after this good man was sent elsewhere by the king, and John came himself to Falaise. Arthur was never seen alive again, and it is believed that John took him out in a boat in the river at night, stabbed him with his own hand, and threw his body into the river. There was, any way, no doubt that John was guilty of his nephew's death, and he was fully known to be one of the most selfish and cruel men who ever lived; and so lazy, that he let Philip take Normandy from him, without stirring a finger to save the grand old dukedom of his forefathers; so that nothing is left of it to us now but the four little islands, Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, and Sark.
Matters became much worse in England, when he quarreled with the Pope, whose name was Innocent, about who should be archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope wanted a man named Stephen Langton to be archbishop, but the king swore he should never come into the kingdom. Then the Pope punished the kingdom, by forbidding all church services in all parish churches. The was termed putting the kingdom under an interdict. John was not much distressed by this, though his people were; but when he found that Innocent was stirring up the King of France to come to attack him, he thought it time to make his peace with the Pope. So he not only consented to receive Stephen Langton, but he even knelt down before the Pope's legate, or messenger, and took off his crown, giving it up to the legate, in token that he only held the kingdom from the Pope. It was two or three days before it was given back to him; and the Pope held himself to be lord of England, and made the king and people pay him money whenever he demanded it.
All this time John's cruelty and savageness were making the whole kingdom miserable; and at last the great barons could bear it no longer. They met together and agreed that they would make John swear to govern by the good old English laws that had prevailed before the Normans came. The difficulty was to be sure of what these laws were, for most of the copies of them had been lost. However, Archbishop Langton and some of the wisest of the barons put together a set of laws—some copied, some recollected, some old, some new—but all such as to give the barons some control of the king, and hinder him from getting savage soldiers together to frighten people into doing whatever he chose to make them. These laws they called Magna Carta, or the great charter; and they all came in armor, and took John by surprise at Windsor. He came to meet them in a meadow named Runnymede, on the bank of the Thames, and there they forced him to sign the charter, for which all Englishmen are grateful to them.
But he did not mean to keep it! No, not he! He had one of his father's fits of rage when he got back to Windsor Castle—he gnawed the sticks for rage and swore he was no king. Then he sent for more of the fierce soldiers, who went about in bands, ready to be hired, and prepared to take vengeance on the barons. They found themselves not strong enough to make head against him; so they invited Louis, the son of Philip of France and husband of John's niece, to come and be their king. He came, and was received in London, while John and his bands of soldiers were roaming about the eastern counties, wasting and burning everywhere till they came to the Wash—that curious bay between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, where so many rivers run into the sea. There is a safe way across the sands in this bay when the tide is low, but when it is coming in and meets the rivers, the waters rise suddenly into a flood. So it happened to King John; he did get out himself, but all carts with his goods and treasures were lost, and many of his men. He was full of rage and grief, but he went on to the abbey where he meant to sleep. He supped on peaches and new ale, and soon after became very ill. He died in a few days, a miserable, disgraced man, with half his people fighting against him and London in the hands of his worst enemy.