Alright, here we go, another history play. King John is one of Shakespeare’s outlier history plays. John was king about 169 years before Edward III. While the play takes some definite liberties with history, it is helpful to know some context before jumping into the plot. Unfortunately, to get a full understanding, we have to go way back.
English Territories in France
William the conqueror came over from France and conquered England, becoming the first English King by some accounts. He was also the Duke of Normandy, so he controlled that northern French territory. William had a son, Henry I who became King after him. Now, Henry had no sons, so he told everyone that his daughter Empress Matilda would be queen. At the time they weren’t too cool with the whole being ruled by a woman, so Henry’s nephew Stephen came out of the woodwork and crowned himself King. Empress Matilda had married a new husband by this point, Geoffrey Plantagenet. He was the Duke of Anjou and he had also taken Maine and Touraine in Northern France. They tried to fight Stephen for awhile, but in the end decided to just let Stephen be king, but with the promise that their son Henry would get to be king after him.So Stephen dies and Henry becomes Henry II along with inheriting his father’s French titles. He marries Eleanor, the hereditary Duchess of Antiquiane in south-eastern France. This gives the King of England rule of large swaths of France as well. As you can imagine this leads to some turmoil, much of which we will see in other history plays.
The Build-up to King John
Unfortunately for Henry II, his wife and sons didn’t think he was such a great ruler, so they fought a couple civil wars against him. In the end, his eldest surviving son, Richard Lionheart, became King. Now, Richard wasn’t too keen on actually ruling England, so he spent most of his time fighting crusades and fathering illegitimate children, like Philip who we’ll meet in the play. Once Richard died, his youngest brother, John, claimed the throne. BUT, there was a middle brother Geoffrey, who died before Henry II, but not before fathering a son, Arthur. By some arguments, that gives Arthur the more legitimate claim to the throne.
In case you didn’t follow that crazy family tree where everyone shares about three names, here is a diagram.
But…what about the play?
I hear you asking though, “What does this have to do with the plot of King John? WELL, King John is all about legitimacy and claims to the throne. John and his mother Eleanor are trying to hold together everything in England and France. However, the French king, Philip, is choosing to back Arthur’s claim to the throne. Plus, we get to have some shenanigans with one of Richard Lionheart’s bastard children. Woo!
Basically, all of the ridiculousness outlined above has lead to this moment. John rules over a huge chunk of France, which, as you can imagine, King Philip isn’t thrilled about. That fact also leads to A LOT of the turmoil we’ll see in the later history plays, or have already seen in Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3. (The good news is I read those ones so you don’t have to! You can find my summaries in the histories section in the menu above) However, John still has legitimate claim to those territories.
Understanding the family tree is also important to understand the themes of legitimacy and inheritance. If you don’t know why some people think Arthur has the better claim, this all seems like nonsense. Of course, one could probably still argue it’s nonsense (Philip the Bastard certainly does), but for now I think it’s important to understand the history leading up to the plot of this play. It will help you sit back and enjoy the play without wondering what the heck is going on.