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John (1167-1216) was king of England from 1199, the younger son of Henry II and successor to his brother Richard I. In 1203 he ordered his nephew Arthur, duke of Brittany, the true heir to the throne, to be murdered. In 1207 Pope Innocent III appointed Stephen Langton archbishop of Canterbury but John did not allow him to take office. In 1213 the pope declared John deposed, and John hurriedly made peace with him. He surrendered the kingdom to the pope and became his vassal.
Because of his violent outbursts of temper, he soon annoyed his barons in English-ruled Anjou and Poitiers, and he lost those lands. In England, he taxed the barons heavily and ignored their rights until they rebelled. John also fought against Philip II of France.
The barons demanded that John should confirm their ancient rights. They met him in a meadow called Runnymede, beside the River Thames. There they forced the king to put his seal to the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was a list of rights and privileges, also known as the Great Charter of Liberties. King John's barons wanted to stop his arbitrary rule and heavy taxes. It insisted that the king should seek the baron's permission before levying taxes. Only a few of the 63 demands listed in Magna Carta promised anything for the common people. One phrase of the charter - 'to no one will we sell, deny or delay right or justice' - established principles which are still the basis of natural justice in England and many other countries.
No sooner had John agreed to the Charter than he went back on his word. The pope absolved John from his oath to grant the demands, because he believed that no anointed monarch should be made to sign away his rights. But he died the following year, leaving the throne to his nine-year-old son, who became Henry III. The barons had the Charter reissued, and in 1225 it became the law of England. The Charter stated that the king could continue to rule, but must keep to the laws of the land and could be compelled to do so.
Despite all this, John's nickname, 'Bad King John', was probably undeserved, despite the violent outbursts of temper to which he was inclined. His evil reputation is based on the work of contemporary chroniclers who bore grudges against him.
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