Episode 1: Introduction - Playing with monarchs

King John has gone down in history as the worst king that England ever had, and he narrowly held onto his throne in 1215 by signing Magna Carta - the Great Charter - cutting his power to a mere shadow of what it had once been. He was the great grandson of William the Conqueror who had seized the kingdom in 1066 after defeating the last Saxon ruler, King Harold, at the Battle of Hastings.

Time to meet the ancestors, for we cannot understand King John without knowing something about them. Between Christmas, 1066, when William was crowned at Westminster Abbey, and John’s death in 1216, England had six kings in the intervening one hundred and fifty years.

The first three were the Norman kings, William II or William Rufus, and Henry I being sons of the Conqueror. King Stephen is a kind-of hybrid, being the king from Blois, in France.

Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and King John were the first three Plantagenet kings. Stephen and his three successors were all descended from the Conqueror.

Willaim Rufus never married and was mysteriously shot dead by a crossbow bolt in the New Forest, in Hampshire, while hunting.

He was succeeded by his youngest brother, Henry I, who married Edith, the daughter of Malcolm III, king of Scots, by his wife, St Margaret, the great great grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside - possibly murdered by King Cnut, in 1017. Edmund was the son of Aethelred II (the Unready).

Henry I was survived in 1135 by his sole heir, his daughter Matilda, the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. She had remarried Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, a province in western France.

Their son became king of England as Henry II in 1154, and he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to this large duchy in south-west France, centred on Bordeaux. Eleanor had inherited Aquitaine from her father Duke William X.

Henry II and his father Geoffrey of Anjou had already made themselves dukes of Normandy, and counts of numerous French provinces in north-west France. Eleanor’s marriage to King Louis VII of France had been annulled. Louis had been reluctant to part with his ex-wife’s duchy of Aquitaine, so her husband Geoffrey conquered it.

Henry II died in 1189, having had several children by Eleanor. The eldest, also called Henry, known as the Young King, had died in 1183. Henry II was succeeded in England and in his French provinces by his second son Richard, better known as the Lionheart for his military skills as a crusader and as a warlord in France. But Henry II’s third son Geoffrey married Constance, heiress to the duchy of Brittany. Geoffrey died in 1186, but not before he had fathered Arthur, duke of Brittany.

King John was Duke Arthur’s uncle and he certainly murdered his nephew, who was his prisoner, in Falaise Castle, in 1203. Some people even said that John strangled the youth with his own hands.

On his deathbed in 1199, Richard the Lionheart, nominated his younger brother John as king of England, in preference to his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, whose claim was better, as only son of third son of Henry II. John was the fourth son.

But John was thirty-two in 1199 and Geoffrey was a ten-year-old. As an adult, John was the better bet, particularly as the king of England was now faced by a new and wily French king, Philip II, who was keen to expel the English from France.

Out of sequence, we come to Stephen of Blois, King Stephen, between 1135 and 1154. He was the son of Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, and Stephen Henry, Count of Blois, Meaux, and Chartres. There had never been a queen regnant in England, or anywhere else in Europe when Henry I died in 1135.

In his lifetime, the old king had got promises from the nobility of England that they would choose his daughter Matilda, but when it came down to it, they chose Stephen, who presided over an English civil war, known as the Time of Troubles.

A year before his death, 1153 - the year in which his son Eustace had died - Stephen made a treaty with Henry Plantagenet nominating Henry as the next king, and the first Plantagenet took the throne as Henry II in 1154.

These interlocking family links - together with all the others before King Stephen upto the present day - can be found in Blood Royal, written by my excellent friend and historian, the late Charles Mosley. This book was published in 2002 for Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee by the Manorial Society of Great Britain and we still have a few copies left.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain