The Reign of John Lackland: Two Archbishops and a Conflict in France


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

John Lackland was the unlikely successor to Richard I as king of England. With a reputation of someone who would kill a family member to ascend to the throne, John Lackland was faced with troubles both internal and on the European continent.

A depiction of Henry II and his children, left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.
The circumstances around which John Lackland became the king have been shrouded with intrigue and conspiracy. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

John Lackland and Arthur of Brittany

John Lackland was always a figure with a somewhat dubious reputation. He had come to the throne under dark circumstances. When his brother, Richard Lionheart, died in 1199, John Lackland was not the automatic choice to be the next king of England. There was Arthur of Brittany, Richard’s nephew.

England and Normandy supported John, but other territories favored Arthur. The two struggled on and off early in John’s reign. Finally, John captured Arthur of Brittany, and mysteriously enough, no one ever heard anything about Arthur of Brittany again.

John would not explain what had happened to him, and contemporaries suspected that John Lackland had simply murdered his rival while in captivity. For the rest of his reign, John Lackland had the reputation of someone who had killed a family member to become the king.

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The King of France’s Norman Conquest

However, things only went from bad to worse for John Lackland. When the French King Philip Augustus seized Normandy, Anjou, and Brittany between 1204 and 1206, the English aristocracy was furious. It was furious because it still had extensive landholdings on the European continent.

The Normans who had come over in 1066 had not given up their lands back in Normandy, but now that many of their possessions had fallen under the jurisdiction of the French king directly, they had to make an agonizingly painful choice.

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral.
John Lackland’s French possessions were taken over by Philip II of France, prompting the English barons to push John into a war. (Image: Samuel R. Gardiner/Public domain)

If they chose to remain loyal to the king of England, their continental possessions would surely be confiscated by the king of France. On the other hand, if they chose to be loyal to the king of France, their English possessions were going to be confiscated by John Lackland.

They had to decide whether or not they would remain in England and be English, essentially, or whether they were going to go back to France and renounce the overlordship of the king of England, and accept the overlordship of the king of France.

Not surprisingly, they preferred not to make such an agonizing choice. They had a far better solution to this problem: that John Lackland should go and take back the lands that had been lost to Philip II Augustus. In that manner, the English aristocracy would be able to retain all of its possessions.

Learn more about the historical meaning of feudalism.

Lackland and the Archbishop of Canterbury

But John Lackland became embroiled in a religious dispute in 1206, which lasted until 1213. This religious dispute tied John Lackland’s hands. It occupied his time, and prevented him from intervening as quickly on the continent as he would have liked.

By strange coincidence, this religious dispute involved the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the dispute was somewhat different than the fight between Henry II and Thomas Becket.

In 1206, the office of Archbishop of Canterbury opened up, and the monks of Canterbury elected a new archbishop. Legally, they had every right to do this. Traditionally, though, they should have waited until the king of England told them whom they were going to elect, or had simply appointed someone.

However, by sticking to the letter of the law, they had infringed upon royal prerogative. John Lackland insisted on having a say in the matter. So, he ordered the monks to elect a different archbishop, one of his own choosing. The monks of Canterbury were willing to go along with this, but the already elected archbishop, whose election had been entirely legal, refused to resign. The result was that there were now two Archbishops of Canterbury!

Stephen Langton: The Archbishop of Canterbury

The two archbishops both appealed to the Pope, and the Pope declared that neither election should have been valid. He declared that the best solution was to come up with a third candidate, and that the monks of Canterbury should hold yet another election. Thus, the monks elected Stephen Langton as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

John Lackland, however, did not accept Stephen Langton. The result was a struggle between the papacy and John Lackland over the issue of whether Stephen Langton should be the Archbishop of Canterbury or not.

The struggle occupied John’s energies for several years. He, himself, was excommunicated for refusing to accept Langton, and all of England was placed under a sentence of interdict.

Coat of Arms of the Archbishopric of Canterbury.
The Archbishopric of Canterbury was the most important spiritual post in England, and was often a site of dispute between the clergy and the king. (Image: Greentubing~commonswiki/Public domain)

When a sentence of interdict is proclaimed by the Church, the Church essentially goes on strike within a region. All the churches are shut down. No masses are celebrated. No marriages are performed. No funerals are held, either. Only those ceremonies that are absolutely necessary for salvation—baptism and last rites—are still performed.

Essentially, the clergy refuses to minister to people. Interdict was a powerful weapon. People were not willing to put off marriages—or funerals—for six or seven years, and, in 1213, John Lackland was finally forced to cave in. He agreed to accept Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Learn more about how monks formed a spiritual elite.

Lackland’s Losses on the Continent

It was only after this that King John Lackland organized the joint invasion with Germany against France. But, by this time, Philip II Augustus was well prepared to meet him. He easily fended off the joint English-German invasion, defeating the Germans at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 and Lackland gave up soon after this loss.

Thus, King John Lackland had essentially lost both struggles: the internal struggle to control the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the struggle to recapture lands on the continent.

Common Questions about John Lackland’s Reign

Q. Why did John Lackland have a dark reputation even at the beginning of his reign?

After becoming king, John Lackland captured and imprisoned Arthur of Brittany, his rival for the throne. But after this, Arthur mysteriously disappeared. Everyone therefore considered John Lackland to be a ruthless man who would murder his own family to become king.

Q. Why did the English Barons want John Lackland to invade France?

The French King Philip Augustus had seized Normandy, Anjou, and Brittany between 1204 and 1206. The English still had extensive landholdings in those regions. So, they wanted John Lackland to invade France and recover their lands.

Q. Why were there two Archbishops of Canterbury early during John Lackland’s reign?

The monks of Canterbury had elected an archbishop without consulting the king, John Lackland. When the king objected, they held another election and appointed the king’s chosen candidate. However, the first elected archbishop refused to resign, which led to the unusual condition of there being two Archbishops of Canterbury at the same time.

Q. What happened to John Lackland’s European invasion?

After the issue of the Archbishop of Canterbury was resolved, John Lackland organized, with Germany, a joint invasion of France. Philip II Augustus was well prepared to meet him. He easily fended off the invasion, defeating the Germans at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, and John Lackland gave up soon after. Thus, the invasion failed.

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