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Shakespeare and King John

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Lineage of Henry II and his sons / Photo by Donna Sokol
Lineage of Henry II and his sons / Photo by Donna Sokol

April 2014 marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.  As a way of combining a salute to Shakespeare and continuing our fascination with all things Magna Carta, I thought I would take a look at Shakespeare’s play, “King John.”  The play is believed to have been written in the 1590s, but it was not published until the 1623 First Folio.  In the United States, it has only been staged in New York four times, but the play has been staged more frequently in England – most recently in 2004.  Although it is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, it tells of an earlier history than Richard II and III, the Henrys (IV, V and VI).

When I began to look at this play, I was struck by the fact that one of the play’s main concerns is with the laws of inheritance – a topic on which I have previously written.  John’s poor relations with his nobles also figure into this play, but (spoiler alert) they do not irrevocably sour until the fourth Act, after John appears to have killed his young nephew Arthur – the legal heir to the throne.  Indeed the play opens with a challenge to John concerning his right to be the king.  The ambassador of  France, Chatillion, conveying a message from the King of France, asserts the claim of Arthur Plantagenet and charges John with unlawfully seizing power:

Philip of France, in right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geffrey’s son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine,
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles,
And put these same into young Arthur’s hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.

John does not directly answer this charge but rather asks what the consequence will be if he does not lay aside the title he has claimed.  However, after the ambassador departs, Queen Elinor, John’s mother, admits the truth of the French claim:

Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me:
So much my conscience whispers in your ear,
Which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.

So why wasn’t John the heir to the throne and who was Arthur Plantagenet?  To answer this question we need to look at John’s family tree as well as the law of primogeniture.

John’s father, Henry II, had four sons who grew to adulthood.  He also had several daughters but they would not have been eligible to inherit the throne by law unless all the sons and any of their male heirs were dead.  Henry II’s  oldest living son, Henry the Young King, had rebelled against his father and died in 1183.  Richard I was next in line and he inherited the Angevin empire (English throne and French territories), reigning from 1189 to 1199.  Richard had married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191,  but they had no children.  Geoffrey was the next son in line to the throne.  He had married Constance of Brittany, and they had one living son, Arthur.  Geoffrey himself had died in 1186.  John was Henry’s youngest son.  The common law principle of primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherit his parents’ estate – excluding all the siblings, male and female.  The working out of this law meant that the children of an older brother would have priority to a younger son in lineal descent.  Since Geoffrey had been older than John, his right to the throne passed to his son Arthur, and John’s right to the throne hinged on the power he could command in holding the throne.  The play also suggests that Richard had left the throne to John in his will.  In the play, the French king, as Arthur’s feudal overlord, is prepared to fight John in battle for control of the Angevin empire.

The play is packed with action.  Act II alone recounts a battle between the French and English before the town of Angiers which neither force wins.  A proposed peace is then brokered with a marriage between John’s niece, Blanch of Spain, and the French dauphin by which John dowers Blanch with various of his French possessions – “Then do I give Volquessen, Toraine, Maine, Poctiers, and Anjou, these five Provinces with her to thee.”  Further John agrees to “create young Arthur Duke of Britain and Earl of Richmond, and this rich fair Town We make him Lord of.”  However, in Act II this peace is disrupted by a papal legate who excommunicates John for refusing to accept the pope’s choice as Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.  The legate threatens the French king with excommunication if he will not break off with John and he agrees.  In the confusion of this breakdown, Arthur falls into John’s hands.

Once he has Arthur in his posssession, John intimates to his man Hubert that he wants Arthur dead:

Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On yon young boy: I’ll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way;
And whereso’er this foot of mine doth tread,
He lies before me: dost thou understand me?
Thou art his keeper.

The rest of the play revolves around the consequences of this desire.  Hubert attempts to kill Arthur but cannot bring himself to do the deed.  However, the king’s nobles  have heard about this intended deed and believing Arthur to be dead, leave John and join the Dauphin who has invaded England at the behest of the papal legate.  John blames Hubert for taking him seriously in his desire to have Arthur killed:


Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murder’d him: I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him.


No had, my lord! why, did you not provoke me?


It is the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humours for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life,
And on the winking of authority
To understand a law, to know the meaning
Of dangerous majesty, when perchance it frowns
More upon humour than advised respect.


Here is your hand and seal for what I did.

Arthur in fact is not killed by John or his servants but dies in a fall, trying to escape.  However, John’s nobles do not believe this and blame him for the deed.  John then reconciles with the pope, but although the papal legate then tries to call off the French, there is a battle between the two forces.  Neither side wins but the French reinforcements drown at sea while many of the English forces drown retreating through fen country.  King John meantime had withdrawn from the battlefield feeling ill but is then poisoned by a monk and dies.  His nobles are reconciled to him before his death because they are told the Dauphin planned to behead them if he had won.  John’s son Henry becomes king – his right to the throne uncontested since all other heirs are dead.

An important secondary plot in the play follows the course of an illegitimate son of Richard I.  This son comes to John’s attention when he and his brother come to court in a dispute over their “father’s will.”  The father knew that his eldest son, Philip, was not his and had left his estate to his  younger son.  The older son however decides to renounce this estate and is knighted by John.  It is a curious twist that the character who could have inherited under the law but who knew he did not have the right by blood should renounce his land and most fiercely support John who did not have the legal right to the kingdom he had seized.


Margaret holding a portion of Kings & Queens of Great Britain/Photograph by Donna Sokol
Margaret holding a portion of Kings & Queens of Great Britain/Photograph by Donna Sokol

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