He was nicknamed "Lackland" because he was given money, not lands, in his father’s original will. A later amendment granting him certain castles in Anjou spurred his brothers to rebellion, which, although quelled, was to lead to his mother’s incarceration for nearly twenty years, and eventually contribute to his father’s death.
John is the popular villain in English history, and his notoriety is re-invoked every time Robin Hood draws bow on page or screen. During Richard’s incarceration by the King of Austria, he attempted to usurp the throne, but was foiled by Eleanor’s support for the king. He also attempted to delay Richard’s return.
He did receive the support of his mother, though, to assume the throne on Richard’s death. Richard had announced his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, as his heir, but Eleanor gave John the support of the immensely rich and powerful Aquitaine. Arthur and the French king Philip II were defeated at Mirebeau (1202). Arthur was captured and, according to legend, murdered by John in Rouen the following year. John’s treatment of Arthur and his fellow captives alienated many of his French subjects.
In 1200 John had had his marriage to Isabella of Gloucester annulled because of lack of issue and married Isabella of Angouleme, a lady already betrothed to Hugh of Lusignam. He confiscated Hugh’s lands as a wedding gift to his new father-in-law. This disregard for feudal protocol was to be used as justification for Philip’s take-over of John’s northern French dominions in 1202-3. (One of the features of the feudal landscape of the time was that, although the King of England was beholden to no temporal authority, that same man was also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and so on, and as such owed fealty to the King of France as ruler of those lands. Later, we were to have the seemingly ridiculous situation whereby King Edward III would halt a military campaign against France to go to the French camp, and kneel and swear fealty to the French King as his liege lord; then resume the campaign.)
The loss of his cross-channel lands was to lead to much unrest. His expeditions to recover them, although partly successful in 1205-6 with the return of Gascony and a part of Poitou to his name, were a drain on the purse and led to greater demands on his nobles, both in terms of finance, and their own time and effort. His increasing demands would finally cause armed conflict, effectively civil war – and yet another effort in his quest for the repatriation of his overseas lands would end in major defeat of his ally, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV by Philip of France in 1214, brought him so low that the barons were able to bring him to Runnymede and the Magna Carta.
It was not only the barons he alienated. In 1206 he had refused to accept the accession of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. This, and his forcing into exile of all the Canterbury monks, brought down the wrath of Pope Innocent III and the whole of England was placed under papal interdict forbidding any Christian services – clergy participation in masses, marriages, burials was forbidden. It was only lifted in 1214. He further angered the Pope and was personally excommunicated. In a brilliant piece of politics he surrendered his lands to the Pope as papal fiefs, thus keeping them from any encroachments by the barons.
He ignored Magna Carta of course. Before the end of the year he was in conflict with the barons again and in 1216 Philip and his son, Louis, invaded England. It is an irony of history that at this time, with seemingly everyone against him, surrounded and outnumbered, John showed courage and skill and fought on. The loss of his supply train at a river crossing on The Wash seemed to signal the end though, and he died shortly after.
He was succeeded by his nine year old son, Henry III, and a country confused and devastated.
John deserves most, if not all, of the opprobrium that history has showered on him. The historian, W. L. Warren says of him: “He had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant”. It is these inclinations he is remembered for. At no time did he put the welfare of the realm before his own desires. He was a cruel man and assumed that others were of the same temperament, therefore he was distrustful of those around him. His barons were always aware that he could turn on any one of them at any time. The governance of the realm suffered accordingly. He showed flashes of brilliance in the field. He managed to subdue the Anglo-Norman magnates in Ireland in 1212 and he can be praised for his final campaigns, but in an era when a country’s prosperity was so contingent on the good character of its ruler he was a failure.
Reference: "Oxford Companion to English History"|"Plantagenet Encyclopedia"